Week 3 – Peat Bog to Path

First things first. I finally made it into the Stirling Observer. I have memories of my older sister featuring many times for her varied Primary school talents, so i’m just going to enjoy my glory moment. It’s only taken me 29 years!

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Week 3 kicked off with, yes you guessed it, another delightful stroll up The Cobbler. Just what one needs to start off a Monday morning, tools and all! We really lucked out with the weather at the start of the week. I’m getting slightly worried that we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security what with this strange burning ball of light that seems to have been following us around a top the hills!

The plan for Monday to Wednesday was to finish up the path maintenance we had started the previous week. For Rory and I, this involved re-landscaping around the cross drain we repaired and cleared on Friday, and then moving on to digging out our first ‘Borrow Pit’. This would allow us to gain some aggregate surface for the path which had been very water damaged and was really just a peat bog. There were large braided areas on both sides where walkers had been avoiding the muddiest parts and it was only going to grow wider over time. Stephen and Fraser had been gathering cobble to fill in the area of bog removed and Ryan, Ross, Jake and Jack were re-landscaping the path edges with boulders and large turfs taken from the hill in order to disguise the trampled sides of flora and keep people on the track. It was a great 3 days where we all saw a huge improvement and felt a sense of pride in being able to transform such a damaged area of the path reasonably quickly. Suddenly, we realised it was well worth the walk!

Before

 After

The Borrow Pit before and After

Thursday was a more realistic spring day, driving to Balloch I quickly encountered blizzard conditions. We were starting the morning by heading down to Loch Lomond and The Trossachs maintenance unit in Dumbarton to meet with Ranger Services Manager, Martin Page and his team. It was great to see their facilities and get a better idea of the work they carry out all year round. After some great hospitality of tea and biscuits and a chat with Matt, John and Kev, Stuart Thompson gave us the grand tour and we then made our way up to Beinglas Farm to rendevous with Gilbert McNeill.

Now, as a practical task volunteer with the National Park, I’ve heard a lot about the legend that is Gilbert so was looking forward to meeting him. I found his knowledge and passion inspiring. It was great having Stuart and Gilbert take us along a severely damaged section on the West Highland Way. An area I remember from walking the WHW back in 2010 (in similar weather I may add). There were many problems such as issues with getting to the site in the first place as it would be inaccessible for any plant tools. There was a lack of available stone on site to work with. There were visible areas were severe weather had caused tree fall to rip edges of the path away, very steep slopes and a lot of braiding damage where walkers have been choosing new lines in order to avoid old redundant features, such as steep and slippery stone pitching. As Gilbert explained, it is a head scratcher in terms of where do they even start. As the park maintenance team have so many jobs to do already, it is likely that something this complex would have to be done by contractors in the end.

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So from my first three weeks, it is becoming clear to me that path maintenance is an essential aspect that is needed in order to protect the landscape. Not just from the increasing social pressures, as more and more people are getting out into the hills but also from the extreme Scottish weather and its unpredictability. Once a path has been built, it will always need to be looked after, so I suppose the question has to be, does the path need to be there in the first place, and if so, can it be built in a way that will cause the least amount of damage as possible.

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Week 2 – 3 Days, 3 Mountains

This week began with a revisit to Ben Arthur (The Cobbler), this time with tools! I’m slowly convincing myself that the walk in is getting easier every time but I don’t know if the others agree. Our plan was to carry out some path maintenance to help us feel more comfortable with our tools. We got the chance to see first hand how certain path features can fail or erode, and how to go about repairing the damage. I also got to break in my brand new jacket.

Rory and I were tasked with the challenge of clearing out our first cross drain which had become severely blocked with silt and mud. It did feel a little like we were making more mess than good, but that’s what happens when you are working in a waterlogged peat bog! We were also challenged by some strong winds and the snow made a few brief appearances too, but we soon warmed up once we got stuck in to the work.

Tuesday took us along to Rowardennan to meet with Alistair Eckersall from the National Trust for Scotland. He took us up to the summit of Ben Lomond, and along the way, showed us how the extensive path erosion has had such severe impacts on the hill. It remains one of the most popular hills in Scotland with over 30,000 people heading to the top every year. In the early 90’s, the main path had been opened up to between 10-25 meters wide and since the trust’s ownerships, with a combination of ranger, contractor and volunteer works, the path has successfully been reduced to 1-2.5 meters wide. A huge task to undertake over a long period of time. Now, path maintenance is an ongoing task, but trying to stop people from avoiding higgildy stone pitching and taking shortcuts is an extremely hard thing to manage.

I also learned that Ben Lomond is known as the beacon hill. ‘Lomond’ likely derived from the Gaelic word Laom, meaning beacon or blaze of light. This suggests beacons were lit on top of the summit as it is visible from large areas of central Scotland. Alistair also showed us an area of stone pitching on the path which is said to be the first example of it’s kind in Scotland. It was built by a woman who had been working in the Lake District. She had travelled up to Scotland in the 18th Century with a desire to improve the walking path. Unfortunately, he didn’t know her name, and my subsequent research has been unsuccessful. (If anyone has more info, i’d love to know more)

On Wednesday I awoke to glorious sunshine. What a day to head up to the summit of Schiehallion! The first munro I ever climbed, my memories were of extreme wind and absolutely nothing to see at the top so today was going to be a completely different experience. We met with Chris Goodman from The John Muir Trust at the car park and he, similarly to Alistair the day before, took us up the mountain. We got to see the amazing transformation from a hill that had no real path at all and had scars of up to 90 feet wide in places, to the completely re-routed path. This was a 5 year project, and was completed in 2005. The Trust has also embarked on a programme to help reduce the damage scars, allowing regeneration of the landscape and in 12 years the scar has healed remarkably. The John Muir Trust works to improve the upland habitats, which are mainly heather moorland and bog, home to threatened species such as black grouse (which we were lucky enough to see), ptarmigans and wild flowers like purple saxifrage. All in all it was a glorious day and an extremely enjoyable climb on a great walking path.

We also had the chance to meet Liz Auty in the morning. She manages the Schiehallion estate for The John Muir Trust and joined us in the morning to tell us a bit more about the history, habitats and the importance of SSSI designation on the mountain. I’ve attached a link to a short video where she explains a little more detail.

The sun continued to follow us into Thursday, where we returned to our first path site at Craigmore in Aberfoyle with Gordon White, our surveying guru who said my site specification drawings were “Alright”. On week 2, I’ll take that. We re-evaluated our path and looked deeper into what kind of ground we were going to be working with. When I say deeper, it was a pretty deep hole that was dug as there is an abundance of peat bog, and Gordon’s nervous laugh left us feeling like it may be a bigger task than we initially thought! A relaxing day after our double munro bagging.

The week ended with a return to The Cobbler, this time with even more tools than before. The walk in……I wouldn’t describe it as fun, but perhaps a little quicker than the last time. I’m trying to be positive! Rory and I were tackling cross drain number two. We definitely felt we had improved our hole digging skills since Monday, and it was our first chance to deal with some real boulder moving and sledge hammering. A satisfying day of hard work, I feel I’ve earned a rest this weekend.

Week 1 – The Magnificent 7 & Me

Day 1: Today was the day I met the 7 others that I will be spending the next 6 months with. If memory serves, there is Steve, Ross, Jake, Jack, Rory, Ryan and Fraser. So yes, that makes me the only women of the group, and I am ready to crush all gender stereotypes that come my way!

Mainly a day of paperwork, we ticked off our induction checklists and prepared our fresh new ring binders for the SVQ documents that will begin to fill it and were given our PPE kits including a super duper new Keela Jacket and a selection of Arco safety wear.

All in all, it was a good day getting to know the others and settle into our new office.

Day 2: Today was a day to complete our first aid training course with Damien Fletcher from DDM training. I’m feeling much more confident with my medical knowledge, especially my bandaging skills!

Day 3: The morning was spent assessing our first path site at Craigmore in Aberfoyle. We carried out a path survey (using our waterproof paper! new to me) taking notes to be transferred to a more detailed survey looking at improving drainage and blocking all path braids created by walkers avoiding the many bog pits. We planned out all the areas where stone pitching, anchor bars and cross drains are required to allow for a more comfortable and appealing walking path, which will meet the old railway path at approximately 380m up.

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The afternoon consisted of carrying out our manual handling training, again with Damien from DDM Training which was really helpful, especially after seeing the size of some of the boulders we are going to have to shift earlier in the day!

Day 4: The day began with us writing up our path notes from the Craigmore site. This helped us pick out the budding artists of the group and together we were able to amalgamate our notes  to come up with a concise plan for where all the path features will be placed.

We then headed out to the Luss Estate to carry out our first mock risk assessment for the Knoll Hill at Duck Bay. This path needs quite a lot of repair and aspects such as crumbling stone pitched steps, very steep slopes, a fallen bridge and sadly a lot of litter, including the likes of broken glass and potentially worse. It is a risk assessors dream!

Returning to the office, we were introduced to Dougie Baird, the CEO of COAT, or in other words, the big boss! He gave us a really interesting presentation all about the history of how COAT came to be, the current projects that are running and the potential future plans with Scotland being at the forefront of upland path building.

Day 5: This day was Kieran’s first chance to assess our true physical fitness (or break us) on our first walk up The Cobbler, or to give it’s proper name, Ben Arthur. A great selection of all weather, even some snow up top. It gave us a chance to see the failure of path features first hand and highlight certain areas of erosion that we could potentially come back to repair. Towards the summit, we met Matt McConway and his team at Upland Access Ltd. and got to see first hand what works they have been carrying out as contractors on the hill.

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I brought the jelly babies so was in the good books and we had a great day all round, giving the team a chance to get to know each other whilst spending a full day out in the wild.