Week 27 – The Grand Finale

So here we are, 6 months down the line, all graduates of year one of The Mountains and the People level 2 SVQ traineeship in Environmental Conservation.

And what a great 6 months it’s been! April began with munro bagging, path maintenance on The Cobbler followed by our first ever path site at Craigmore just near Aberfoyle building a new path from scratch.

We then spent a week learning professional techniques in Drystane Dyking with Gordon Kydd based at Luss Estates.

We carried out smaller scale maintenance tasks on Conic Hill and along the West Highland Way near Beinn Ghlas Farm.

My mandatory path skills work placement was with The National trust for Scotland’s Mountain Path team working on Ben Lawers NNR with Ben Farrington and Nan Morris.

And I had the chance to spend two weeks with Becky Austin and Ami Lee at RSPBs Loch Lomond Reserve as part of my work experience placements. This focused on the habitat management and surveying course modules and I was given the opportunity to work alongside Becky’s volunteer work party, carry out non-native species removal, tree planting, bird and butterfly surveying, fence removal, woodland inventories, fen burning on the Aber bog, path maintenance and species identification. It has been great to see how a relatively new reserve has grown and progressed over time and as a volunteer with the National Park, I plan to continue returning to the reserve to help out as much as I can.

We then re-built the approach path to Beinn Dubh in Glen Luss using stone pitching techniques.

Focusing again on our habitat based modules, we spent a week on Ben Lomond aiding in the peat bog restoration project with Alistair Eckersall of NTS. He explained why the peat bogs are so important for the worlds carbon capture and taught us the most effective techniques used in damming the deep drainage ditches, creating reservoirs to help re-saturate the mountain bogs.

I was also lucky to be selected for another work placement with Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. This was kindly arranged by Tom and Charlotte Wallace and was a really mixed schedule allowing us to focus more on our modules which looked at promoting public use of the outdoors and environmental good practice. We looked at the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the Land Reform act in more detail with the access and planning department. I spent a day cycling a section on National Cycle Network 7 between Callander and Balquidder. Wednesday was spent in Balmaha discussing education, inclusion and engagement and gave us a chance to work alongside the seasonal rangers in the visitor centre. We worked with the maintenance rangers on Conic hill carrying out some path work on Thursday and finished with a black grouse habitat survey linked with the parks Wild Park 2020 project.

Returning to where it all began for our second last path site, we stomped up The Cobbler for 4 weeks carrying out a path refurb on an area requiring a lot of stone pitching to be either built or re-built to reduce a steep gradient. We built drainage features including cross drains and water bars and finished it all off with new surfacing and landscaping.

I worked along side Rosie and her volunteer work parties at Inversnaid and on The West Highland Way to repair some path sites.

And finally, our last site was The Harry Lauder Memorial path in Glenbranter. This project was planned and funded by The Friends of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs and we transformed an old, tired route using the stone building skills that we’ve developed over the last 6 months.

Breaking it all down to what we have achieved over the course puts it all into perspective. It’s really wonderful looking back at all that we have done. I have learnt so much and had the opportunity to meet so many interesting and knowledgable people along the way. I’ve been involved in lots of great conservation projects across the National Park and feel so much more confident moving forward in my career.

Spending the last 6 months with 7 blokes on the side of a mountain has been an absolutely fascinating experience. I sometimes felt like it was all a big wind up and I was being secretly filmed for some kind of hidden camera show, and those lads don’t half moan! But I’m certainly going to miss them all dearly.

I also just wanted to say thank you to all of you for reading the blog throughout the course. I committed to writing it when I began and the kind comments and support from everyone has been a real driving force for me to keep it up. My readers stats have been so overwhelming and I’ve really enjoyed writing and consolidating each week along with all my photos. I’m happy to have been able to help promote year one of the project and provide an archived blog which will be useful for future years.

Tom is kindly putting me forward for the Lantra learner of the year award and I think the blog will play a big part in that. I’m going to take a bit of a break from it at the mo, but it isn’t necessarily disappearing forever. For now though, thank you for reading!

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Week 26 – The Penultimate Week

img_6471Returning to the Harry Lauder Memorial site in Glenbranter this week, Rory and I continued to work on the first stretch of the path, building stone pitching steps above the cross drain we finished last week. We needed to curve the path around to the left to meet the flat level surface at the top. Apart from finding the original old tarmac A815 and having to hack away at it with a mattock for a while, everything has gone really well. Building with quarried stone has been very different to having to just use what we could find on the Cobbler. There have been so many more flat surfaces to work with and I could get used to this lowland path millarky. No walk in, lovely wee sun trap! The photo’s show the process from start to finish. We are really happy with the result and feel we have created a really inviting start.

Simon has been working on building the larger cross drain which meets the clay culvert pipe running through the embankment to reach our smaller one. Originally, there was a sort of wooden bridge crossing the ditch, so large stones have been needed to reduce the step across and gain quite a lot of height. Simon’s been quite vocal this week whilst wrestling with rocks, but the result is quite a brute of a cross drain that will definitely do the trick!

Fraser worked on the next section setting in a stretch of anchor bars needed to reduce the paths gradient and they will also act to control the movement of surfacing downhill.

Then we come to Ryan’s “Stairs to Mordor” as I like to call them. This was the steepest section of path so needed continuous stone pitching to reach the corner. It also functions to really contain the path and it would be unlikely that walkers would choose to take an alternative route.

Once Ryan, Rory and I had finished our pitching we put in another seven anchor bars to reach the kissing gate to the field.

Kieran began work on the next section of pitching towards the monument and the last stretch of wooden box steps have now also been removed ready for the stone work. Jake and Fraser have dug out the path tray around the fence line and this will be surfaced using type 1 aggregate and finished with wind dust as will the rest of the path.

Rosie is returning to the site with a volunteer work party on Saturday to carry out extra tidying such as final surfacing, ditch clearing and landscaping and the wooden handrails will also be reinstated.

Week 25 – Roamin’ In The Gloamin’

This week we began work at our final path site in Argyll, at the Harry Lauder memorial.

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In 1911, Lauder had become the highest-paid performer in the world, and was the first Scottish artist to sell a million records. He raised vast amounts of money for the war effort during World War I, for which he was subsequently knighted in 1919. He then went into semi-retirement in the mid 1930s, but briefly emerged to entertain troops in World War II. He suffered personal tragedy during the war, when his only son, John, a Captain in the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was killed in action on 28 December 1916 at Pozieres. Harry wrote the song “The End of the Road” in the wake of John’s death and had a monument for his son erected in the private Lauder cemetery in Glenbranter.

Glenbranter is now owned by The Forestry Commission who manage the land. I was actually told that back around the 1920’s, Lauder sold the land (something like 15000 hectares) for £21,000! This project to improve the site has been organised and funded by Friends of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, looking to make the path more obvious and accessible to reach the memorial, situated just off the main A815 road between Strachur and Dunoon.

We had from Wednesday to Friday to make a start on clearing the existing path of vegetation and ripping out the old wooden box steps and hand rails. We also had 30 tonnes of stone brought in from the local quarry and began to transport it across to the site with the power barrow. We were a smaller team this week so Rory and I began at the start of the path building some anchor bars to reduce the gradient and set in a cross drain to meet the clay culvert pipe running down the embankment.

We also dug out a drainage ditch above the kissing gate to encourage water flow away from the path and Ryan and Fraser began working on the anchor bars and large section of pitching at the higher section.

We’ve made great progress in three days, and are hoping the sun stays out for the following week. We’re all really enjoying the little sun trap and how pleasant working on a lowland site is!

We also helped Rosie at the start of the week on a volunteer day with West Dumbartonshire Councils New Horizons work group. We were looking at defining an area of the West Highland Way path at Millarochy Bay. It had become slightly unclear where the path route was going so we built two anchor bars, cleared the path line of large boulders and trip hazards, used revetment to build up the path edges and finished with a bit of resurfacing.

It’s been satisfying to be able to complete these kind of tasks in a day which produce really successful results that everyone can feel quite chuffed about.

Week 24 – Cleaning Up the Cobbler

The beginning of the week took me on a boat ride from Tarbet to Inversnaid to help Rosie in leading her volunteer work party for the day. As well as her troop of returning volunteers, we also had a work party from Lloyds TSB who had come out on their annual volunteering day to take part in ‘Make a difference day’. I was tasked alongside Tom to help clear and widen the RSPB managed woodland trail which had become overgrown with vegetation. It was a really good day working with the group and great to talk to them about the sense of achievement they all felt after a day of path work. They really enjoyed the day despite the torrential rain and it was very different to their daily office environment. I’m so pleased with our result and know that it is really appreciated by RSPB Site Warden, Fraser Lamont who was kind enough to give us a tour of the reserve before we began working.

The rest of the week saw us return to the Cobbler for the final time. I’m not saying i’ll NEVER go up again, but we’re on a break for the next wee while! We had a few small sections of the path spec to complete and a lot of landscaping and tidying up to do to get everything finished for Friday.

img_6248I’ve really enjoyed working to Gordon’s spec drawings on this site. It’s been a good chance to see a section of path, pre-work and understand the reason for certain features to be required, be it for drainage or gradient control. The weather has been extremely unforgiving this time around, but I think that’s all part of the test to see if we can cut it as path workers. No-one cried, so I think we’re doing ok! The photo’s below show a comparison of before and after photo’s of the path. This site has given us a chance to practice a lot more stone pitching techniques than we have before. Everyone contributed to at least one section and I think we all feel a strange sense of ownership of the mountain now.

Before                                                        After

For now Ben Arthur, it’s adios from me!

Week 23 – LLATTNP Work Placement

Day 1 : We began our week with a morning briefing with Charlotte Wallace, Volunteering, Education and Engagement Manager at the National ParkShe talked us through all the activities we would be involved in throughout the week and what aspects of our SVQ course modules the park was looking to help us achieve. We had a chance to discuss any particular course objectives that we would like to work on during our time at the park and went over all of our risk assessments for each day.

We were then introduced to Guy Keating and Kenny Auld, both Recreation and Access Advisers within the National Parks Planning Department. They drove us up to Aberfoyle where we firstly walked to the Aberfoyle Bike Park. This project was developed to create a accessible and useable public space for mountain biking of all levels in an area that would previously have been considered a waste ground by the local community. They explained the conflicts and oppositions that can sometimes slow or even stop these kinds of developments completely and really highlighted the amount of time, planning and communication with a variety of authorities that is needed to allow these kind of projects to go ahead.
We also had a look at the National Cycle Network 7 route which runs from Sunderland to Inverness. We discussed the aspects of partnership working with organisations such as Sustrans and Cycling Scotland and the shared usage of that kind of path. It provides accessibility for a wide range of users, such as bikes, buggies, dog walkers and wheelchairs and we highlighted the pros and cons of the tarmac track and who might oppose or disagree with such a proposal.
Our day ended with a visit to The Forestry Commission Lodge where we looked in more detail at Access Legislation, The Scottish Outdoor Access Code and The Land Reform Act (2003). This allowed us to understand in more detail the rights and responsibilities of land owners, authorities and members of the public.
And we finished with a walk along the more recently built ‘All Abilities’ route at the lodge. This has been specifically built following strict specifications allowing users to have access to the waterfall views avoiding the steeper route and is open to everyone.
A really interesting day finding out more about an aspect of the National Park I previously knew little about from two really great and knowledgable guys.
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Day 2 : This day was organised by Craig Walker, Volunteer Advisior with the park. Tommy Lusk, one of the parks Volunteer Rangers and I set off to meet Stuart at the Callander Meadows car park in the morning to begin our cycle along NCN7 to Balquidder. Simon was attending a path skills recruitment day in Keswick in the Lakes so lucky for me, that meant I could bring my own bike along! The route, apart from crossing one road at Kilmahog, is all off road and the setting is beautiful.
We passed by the Falls of Leny and reached Strathyre taking in stunning views across Loch Lubnaig and towards the summit of Ben Ledi. The day consisted of engaging with path users offering information and advice and monitoring people numbers in key tourist locations.
A really great cycle route, highly recommended and even better in the sunshine! Rather than coming back the same way, which you can do, we carried on to Balquidder and looped back along a very minor road to return to Strathyre. A really lovely detour through some really atmospheric woodland. A big thanks to Stuart and Tommy for having me.
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Day 3 : We spent Wednesday with Ali Cush, the National Parks Education and Inclusion Advisor. We discussed the main roles of the National Park as a public body, making the outdoors accessible to everyone and educating people about why it’s such an important place for wildlife, biodiversity and health.
We looked at the byelaws which will come into place next year and why antisocial behaviour and littering can create negative impacts, not just on the landscape but to communities, local businesses and beyond. We highlighted how education and outdoor learning has such positive results for not just schools, but people who feel they don’t have access to such a great and free resource. Balmaha is a really great place for a case study as it encourages such a variety of tourism. It is a real honeypot for visitors looking for an outdoor experience, be it water sports, hillwalking, West Highland Way traffic, camping or just day trippers. It also has very interesting geological history with the Highland boundary fault line running through it, so from an educational point of view, social and physical geography, travel and tourism, economics and conservation can all be highlighted.
We finished up by spending the afternoon at the visitor centre working along side seasonal rangers Sarah, Ian and Mike. We had the opportunity to engage with a variety of tourists, providing help and advice about walking routes, amenities, camping or general info about the park.
Simon and I really felt like we had the chance to focus a lot more on some of the SVQ modules relating to public engagement and promoting responsible use of the outdoors than we get to out on the hill. Talking with Ali about inclusion and education was great and I really believe that by teaching young people about understanding, respecting and protecting their free natural resource, this will result in them teaching their elders in the future. Massive thanks to all the guys for having us for the day.
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Day 4 : We were based down at the maintenance unit in Alexandria with the parks maintenance team on Thursday and our plan was to head up the south side of Conic Hill to carry out some path maintenance. Matt and Stuart clearly knew that Simon and I would be experiencing withdrawals from the hills at this stage in the week, so with the sun beaming down we started from the top and worked our way down clearing the waterbars of silt and vegetation build up and opening up, clearing and deepening the ditch lines where necessary.
We also had a look at some of their fencing techniques and Matt provided a lot of interesting reading material related to both path work and BTCV fencing guides.
They were a really great team to spend the day with and so helpful for us to learn about all the work they consistently carry out across the park.
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Day 5: The final day with the park took us to Callander to meet with Grahame Auty, Assistant Land Management Officer with the National Park. He talked us through the Wild Park 2020 biodiversity action plan which is looking at various projects with the objective to conserve and enhance the ecosystems and wildlife across the National Park.
We were focusing on the Black Grouse project which are a priority species within the Park. We were carrying out a land survey at The Commonty, near the Callander Crags. The project is looking at managed grazing, controlling cattle numbers and the amount of time they are left on the land. Hopefully by reducing this it will help the regeneration of plant species that will encourage black grouse back to the area. It is a five year long survey but realistically, to allow vegetation to recover and regenerate could potentially take a lot longer.
Graham taught us how to use the survey techniques and has helped us tick off a big part of our habitat management and surveying SVQ modules. Great company and a big thanks for having us.
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Finally I’d just like to say a huge thanks to Charlotte Wallace for organising the whole week and making it all possible. She put so much work into the five day schedule and clearly spent a lot of time trying to relate each day back to our course modules which is so so helpful for us achieving our SVQ qualification. Thank you!

Week 22 – Pitching and Ditching

Arriving fresh and ready to climb after our week away on flat ground, Rory and I re-joined the others to carry on with our path work on The Cobbler. With Ryan and Stephen both being away on their second work placements with Stonescape and Upland Access, we were a smaller team this week.

img_5999The weather has been very mixed, with Monday being one of the wettest days on the hill yet but with the temperature rising everyday, we were gifted with some sun by the end of the week.

It was great to see how much the guys had all achieved while  we were away at the RSPB reserve. Lots of sections of stone pitching from the spec have been completed with revetment and landscaping the path edges finishing it all off nicely.

The previous week Rory and I had finished off building a double anchor bar, clearing a water bar and extending the ditch line, so on our return we began by digging a borrow pit near the top of the path to try and gain some good surfacing material. This is a sort of large hole which is often dug on an area with a slight gradient in the hope to find some less soil rich and more mineral based, sand/clay like deposits. You can often tell where is good to dig by what kind of vegetation is growing there. By peeling the turfs back, we removed the good surfacing in buckets and then were able to return the peat layer and grass back, allowing it to regenerate looking like we were never even there!

After opening the pit and successfully reaching a nice layer of the good stuff, we moved onto our first section of pitching. Towards the top of the path, there are four small sections of existing pitching which need a bit of work. Our plan was to take what is currently there out and start again, working from the bottom up. Once the first stone was in (which for us, took three pinch bars, a lot of testosterone and grunting) we could then work up hill, pinching the next stone onto the back of the one in front and so on. The photos show our progress after two days, the last one is the finished product with all the revetment stones and landscaping at the sides to try and deter walkers from trampling the edges and sticking to the stepping stones.

There are three more sections of pitching to complete with water bars at the top along with finishing off some areas with fresh surfacing, landscaping and a bit of a tidy up. Even though the climb up through the forest is a bit of a killer, we’re starting to take a bit of ownership of The Cobbler now we’ve all spent so much time there. We’ve even been greeted by this heard of red deer most mornings which I never tire of.

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Week 21 – A Story of Fire and Bog

With 7 weeks of the course left to go, Rory and I returned to RSPB Loch Lomond to spend a week back on the Fen.img_5947As well as our consistent practical path work and portfolio, our SVQ requires us to carry out two work placements. It is mandatory that one is path based, which for me was my week with the NTS mountain path team on Ben Lawers and for Rory, a week with Upland Access Ltd. on The Cobbler. However the second one can be related to something else within the course and I wanted to focus a little more on the habitat management, surveying and people engagement aspects. After chatting with Rory, we decided to get back in touch with Becky Austin, the Assistant Warden at the RSPB to arrange to return to carry out some more work on the reserve.

As mentioned in a previous post, the site forms part of the Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve (NNR) and was acquired by the RSPB in April 2012. It is managed by the RSPB, SNH and LLTNP in a unique partnership and the RSPB are currently developing the site to make it an even better home for nature.

The plan for the week was mainly to carry out Burning and Turning on the Aber Bog. There are many different site designations across the reserve, a lot of which are linked to the protection of breeding birds in the fen habitat. Before the RSPB owned the reserve, the burn that runs through the bog was situated closer to the central bund. It has since been re-directed lower down, but it has resulted in the leaching of nitrates from agricultural fertilisers. This has allowed the Canary Grass to flourish across the Aber Bog which is very dominant and creates a matted carpet of thick, almost thatch like grass. This will continue to become denser every year and makes it extremely hard for the Spotted Crake to move around on the ground. This bird species is one that the RSPB are trying to encourage to the area, so the Canary Grass needs to be managed.

After the large area of fen has been cut, it is raked into long piles to dry out ready for burning. It can then be moved onto large metal sheets which will conduct heat, and by using both wet and dry cuttings, the fire can be controlled. The ash produced is then removed from the fen and composted.

Unfortunately, as I’m sure you are aware, the weather this week didn’t really go hand in hand with trying to build a fire outdoors, so other than Wednesday afternoon, we didn’t manage to achieve as much burning as Becky had originally hoped for.

Instead, we had a really varied week which included finishing off the woodland survey, consisting of checking tree ID’s within the woods against the relative documents and taking canopy cover percentages. We removed a fence line in preparation for the construction of the new path, we cleared vegetation from the bases of tree saplings and planted some more at the Net Bay viewpoint and spent a morning (with a bit of trial and error) moving 12 more metal sheets down to the Aber Bog to use as burning mats. We also had the opportunity to join Becky on her first Hen Harrier survey of the year and we ticked off a lot of aspects of our health and safety module by carrying out fist aid kit, PPE, tool and vehicle safety checks. The week wouldn’t be complete without a little bit of path maintenance! So Rory and I used our professional skills to help widen the foot path at Net Point, getting rid of any weeds and larger stones which could be classed as trip hazards.

Regardless of the weather, it’s been a really great week. We’ve enjoyed a real mixture of tasks and the company of Becky, Ami and all of their lovely volunteers has been thoroughly enjoyable. I’m hoping to keep returning to the reserve as time goes on to see how things continue to improve and grow.