Main image: Contractors doing mountain path repair work as part of the Mountains and the People Project on Ben More. Credit: Brodie Hood
Scotland’s mountain landscape is one of the country’s greatest assets, important environmentally and for recreation. Most of us who visit the mountains use paths, yet too many of them are becoming badly eroded, which is damaging to the environment. They become eyesores too and are often unpleasant to walk on and even dangerous.
The paths we walk in the mountains are hammered by our boots and shoes. The more popular the path the greater and faster the wear and tear. Weather extremes, which are increasing, have an adverse effect too. Paths will always deteriorate without regular maintenance. Many now need repairing. Some paths, neglected for far too long, need complete reconstruction. Others may need realigning to a less damaging line as the John Muir Trust did with success at Schiehallion.
A new campaign from Mountaineering Scotland and the Outdoor Access Trust for Scotland (OATS) called It’s Up To Us asks all who care about our hills – hillwalkers, mountaineers, organisations, businesses and more – to contribute. Initially the campaign aims to raise £300,000 for path repairs on An Teallach, one of the great mountains of the Scottish Highlands.
Path repair and maintenance should not have to rely on fund raising and donations, worthy though these are. I think it’s shameful and shocking that the government body responsible for paths, NatureScot, says on its website “very little funding is available for upland path repair and there’s no funding for path maintenance”. Why not? How has this dire situation arisen? What is being done about it?
NatureScot goes on to say, “various organisations involved in upland path management are working together to develop a more strategic approach to upland path management” and has produced a Scottish Upland Path Audit Report that goes into great detail about the initial and ongoing costs involved. It concludes that “repair and restoration work could cost between £27 million and £30 million if all the work was undertaken” with nothing said about where the money is to come from.
It is a great deal of money. Path work is slow and laborious. It takes time and many hands. One metre of path costs on average £90 to repair and at least 410km of path is in need of serious repair according to NatureScot’s audit. But hillwalking and mountain biking are estimated to annually bring in more than £65 million and £75.5 million respectively. Overall, active tourism brings in around £1.6 billion a year. Set against those figures, repairing and maintaining paths is affordable.
Only paths in national parks or on land owned by conservation bodies like the John Muir Trust and the National Trust for Scotland currently receive any funding (and the conservation bodies often appeal to the public for this). It is not enough. After initial repairs, maintenance isn’t carried out. I know several paths in the Cairngorms National Park which were vastly improved but are now disintegrating again due to lack of maintenance.
Paths on private land – in other words, most of them – are not eligible for any funding. The EU used to provide millions of pounds for path projects but that’s gone due to Brexit and has not been replaced. Given everything else that has happened since Brexit, I doubt it ever will be.
Following the fundraiser for An Teallach, the It’s Up To Us Campaign aims to “work with stakeholders and Government to develop a long-term model of funding for upland paths”. In the long run this is by far the most important part of the campaign. It’s sorely needed. The fundraiser is a good device for showing the government that enough people care for upland paths, and I wholeheartedly support it. The benefit to An Teallach will be excellent – but if the campaign goes no further, how long before we’re asked to contribute to another fundraiser for another mountain?
Given the money brought into the economy by us hillwalkers and the benefits to mental and physical health of going to the hills – which is good for everybody – plus the benefits to the environment, path repair and maintenance should be a priority. Mountain paths should be regarded as part of the national infrastructure and funded as such.
Most of the funding should come from general taxation, in my opinion. Some could come from a “tourist tax” in mountain areas, some from regular donations from businesses that profit from hillwalking and mountaineering, with as little from donations from individuals. What is essential is that there’s an overall plan that guarantees funding for repairs now and maintenance in the future.