Is it time to pay for our pleasures?

viewpoint“NATIONAL Trust for Scotland to ‘ask people to pay towards wilderness upkeep’ for first time,” declared the headline in The Herald last month.

You might be forgiven for thinking the NTS was going to start charging folk to climb hills on their properties and indeed, following that headline several journalists rang me to ask ask for my opinion.

My opinion was simple. The headline was misleading. Under Scotland’s Land Reform legislation you can’t be asked to pay to climb a hill, or go for a walk and it wasn’t until I fully read the NTS press release that I discovered that paying for access wasn’t the issue.

Essentially the NTS is broke and needs to find £47 million for the upkeep of its properties and land portfolio. Like any organisation in the financial doldrums it is looking at a variety of ways to try and raise much needed cash.

But rather than “leveraging money from its vast tracts of wilderness, as opposed to its charged-for buildings and parks, is being seen as a way forward,” as the Herald feature suggested, the Trust plans to appeal directly to walkers and countryside users to contribute voluntarily to help in the upkeep of its mountain properties.

And despite the Herald’s rather tabloid headline, this is not the first time the NTS has publicly asked hillwalkers for financial help.

Before we look at that it’s worth reminding ourselves why the NTS is so important to hillwalkers. The charity is responsible for the care 46 Munros; 394 miles of mountain footpaths; seven national nature reserves; St Kilda, along with 400 other islands and islets and 45 Sites of Special Scientific Interest. And that’s in addition to various castles, houses, gardens and battlefields.

Some 15 years ago I helped the National Trust for Scotland launch its Sole Trading Appeal – a plea to hill-walkers to donate some cash to help the Trust maintain the miles of mountain footpaths on their properties, and more recently I presented a publicity video in Glen Coe to promote the Trust’s ‘One Wee Step’ campaign to encourage folk to donate towards the upkeep of its mountain properties.

Repaired footpath in Glen Coe

Repaired footpath in Glen Coe

Such appeals give us the chance to ‘put something back’ into the hills we love and occasionally opportunities arise that allow us to contribute in a more physical, more corporal way as well.

When I was editing The Great Outdoors magazine I helped co-ordinate some hands-on footpath work with Andrew Gordon, owner of Gleouraich and Spidean Mialach in the west highlands. Through the magazine we enlisted the help of a dozen or so readers to help estate staff carry out some essential repairs on the footpath to these great hills, and it was a huge success. I’m a little bit surprised we don’t see more of this kind of co-ordinated volunteering.

Here in Scotland we boast some of the finest mountain footpaths in the world, many of which were originally created by shepherds, stalkers and drovers. These are paths that were initially designed and laid down to serve several stalking parties a year, and the occasional use by keepers or shepherds, but many of these paths are now in serious decline, battered and bashed by the innocent pounding of hill-walkers’ boots.

Footpath repair and maintenance is not cheap and costs up to £100 – 150 per metre to stabilise a mountain footpath properly – there is no point in doing it cheaply for the weather conditions in Scotland, particularly in the hills, would make short shift of cheap and shoddy work.

While hill-walkers and climbers ask for very little – we really just want our mountains to stay the same, undeveloped and unspoiled – the problem of deteriorating footpaths is a serious one that needs urgent attention. I say this not simply because walking up a hillside in ankle-deep peat or mud can be unpleasant, but because the act of repairing a footpath actually goes a long way to ‘healing’ the mountain itself.

Badly eroded paths create water-courses that flush away vegetation which in turn can affect invertebrate life which in turn can affect bird life. It’s part of the destructive chain-reaction that was so well described when the poet Francis Thompson wrote about the intricate web of creation that is nature – “thou canst not stir a flower, without troubling of a star.”

Footpath maintenance work is conservation work of the first order, and the fact that walkers get a reasonable surface to walk on is really of secondary importance. Again, the NTS had set the agenda for others by adopting an approach of zoning mountain paths according to wild land and landscape sensitivity values and has switched from expensive invasive repairs to more environmentally conscious light touch, pre-emptive techniques.

But faced with spiraling costs organisations like the NTS have to rely on appeals like the ones I have mentioned to allow them to carry on with this vital work. The One Wee Step Appeal simply asks all those who treasure the hills to help with the cost of never ending path restoration, maintenance and care.

Using the path on Goatfell, Arran

Using the path on Goatfell, Arran

Long before the liberated days of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act the NTS operated a policy of open access to its mountain properties, some of the most popular hills in the country. Mountains like Ben Lawers, Liathach, Goatfell on Arran, the Glen Coe hills and some of the finest high tops of the Cairngorms are immensely popular and attract vast numbers, well-meaning visitors who inevitably take their toll on such a fragile environment.

To counter the erosion from walkers and climbers the Trust has to stabilise slopes, shed water from paths, encourage walkers to use renewed path surfaces and regenerate bare, eroded ground. This is all expensive work – in the last 20 years, the Trust has spent around £3-4 million on footpath repairs alone.

The Trust’s latest plea for voluntary contributions is likely to spark debate among those of us who use the hills for recreation, but it’s worth thinking about the joys and pleasures our hills give us, and which essentially costs us nothing.

I personally don’t mind putting my hand in my pocket now and again to help pay for the protection of our finest landscapes and I’m even happy to go for a day or two every so often to help wield a pick and shovel or even join one of the John Muir Trust’s litter collecting expeditions.

The John Muir Trust are appealing for funds to repair the path up Suilven

The John Muir Trust are appealing for funds to repair the path up Suilven

In these harsh economic times we can’t expect charities like the NTS, or even private landowners, to continually foot the bill for the damage that we innocently cause, and the very least we can do is to become a member of organisations like the NTS or the JMT and support their work in every way we can.

If we accept the Scottish hills belong to all of us, perhaps it’s also incumbent on us to contribute to their protection.

National Trust for Scotland Footpath Fund: http://www.footpathfund.org.uk/
John Muir Trust Suilven path appeal: https://www.johnmuirtrust.org/support-us/campaigns/662-suilven-path-appeal

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