Week 15 – NTS Work Placement at Ben Lawers NNR

The National Trust for Scotland cares for some of Scotland’s magnificent landscapes and over 400 miles of paths including Goat Fell, Ben Lawers, Ben Lomond, Mar Lodge Estate and Torridon as well as many others. 

The NTS Mountain Path Team are committed to conserving and maintaining the Trust’s network of mountain paths for future generations. By using light-touch techniques, and wherever possible building by hand using locally sourced material, they aim to ensure the paths are preserved by providing a long lasting solution to the problem of erosion, with a minimal visual impact.

Ben Lawers is Scotland’s tenth highest Munro and the highest mountain in Tayside. Stretching 1,214m (3,984ft) above Loch Tay, it gives it’s name to a whole National Nature Reserve. It encompasses nine mountains within the southern slopes of the Ben Lawers and Tarmachan ranges, seven of which are Munros. It is a hugely significant mountain range due to its unique arctic-alpine flora, of which many are rare and endangered species.

Simon and I spent the week working on the Beinn Ghlas path with Ben Farrington and Nan Morris. They form half of the NTS mountain path team who have existed since 2002. Seeing their approach to path maintenance has been really insightful. Rather than having to carry out large scale build works after severe erosion has occurred, they have a more consistent relationship with the mountains they manage. This firstly means they already know the paths well and are aware of areas which may be prone to damage from weather or feet and secondly, they return more regularly so can see what techniques have been successful and if not, why.

We started from the top and worked our way downhill as the week went on which was a nice treat. Knowing your walk in will be shorter every day is pretty nice! We were looking at areas where the path had been widened or the main path line had been slightly lost due to excessive braiding (where people avoid walking on the path and gradually create new lines, damaging the surrounding vegetation). It was very interesting having to think about the psychology of hill walking. It was a case of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and thinking where would my tired legs take me to get me up or down the hill. People will often be looking for the easiest, kindest on the knees option.

By using techniques of setting in large blocker stones and landscaping at the top and bottom of the braided sections, they become almost closed off to the eye and by smoothing down the larger cobble and adding some new surfacing onto the actual path line, you can control the way people will walk. This allows the vegetation to regenerate at the sides of the path (albeit slowly due to extreme weather on the mountain). We also reduced the drop on some large steps by setting in extra stones. Another small scale fix which makes a real difference and we cleared all drains as we worked our way down hill.

I have really enjoyed the week working with Nan and Ben. There is something to be said about spending time up a mountain with some like minded people. The wild weather becomes quite insignificant and the satisfaction of seeing progress and quick results from a hard days graft makes it all the more rewarding. The extreme change in weather is something i’m getting pretty used to!

If you are interested in seeing how the NTS Mountain Path Team are getting on, you can follow their continuing great work on their Facebook page, (link attached below).


Week 14 – Access Paths Made Easy

This week has flown by working in the muggy heat at Luss Estates. Managing to just miss the rain and thunder storms on Wednesday, we spent four days stone pitching the approach path to Beinn Dubh in order to reduce the gradient and manage the drainage of the existing path.

The circuit of the hills above Glen Striddle makes for an excellent short hillwalk and the ascent up the grassy ridge rising from Luss is well worth it for the views over Loch Lomond and up towards the Arrochar Alps. It is a busy footpath with visitors climbing the hill or choosing to walk the Luss quarry path so it has been a good week for engaging with people and having the chance to explain a bit more about what we are doing. It is always nice to know our work is appreciated by both tourists and regular walkers. (I do occasionally have to stick up for myself when up we often hear, “you’re all doing a grand job boys”.)

So we began by removing the complex tangle of tree roots growing over the path and by firstly setting in a double anchor bar at the start of the path. This provided a small step up to the next level of gradient and allowed us to lay surfacing behind to reach the culvert pipe already in place. This culvert was free flowing so after making sure the drainage ditch had no blockages, we laid a cap stone over the end of the pipe to hide and protect it and began our stone pitching up hill.

As it was a small worksite, we took it in turns to have a go at the pitching and worked together to select the best stones. We also dug a drainage ditch to meet the already existing one and set in a water bar at the top of the path to direct water off to the left hand side. It’s great what we managed to achieve in four days and  I think we all felt a sense of ownership over the site and are really happy with the result.


I have also made up some species lists from my time at RSPB last week. I don’t think i’ve managed to identify everything that we saw, but there’s certainly a good mix of birds, insects, fungi, plants and trees and I’m still trying to practice my birdsong identity skills!

Week 13 – Site Strolling, Species Surveying and Non-Native Suppression

This week I had the chance to spend 5 days at RSPB Loch Lomond working alongside Assistant Warden Becky Austin and her two live in volunteers Ami and Struan. Located on the southeast shores of Loch Lomond, the site has a fantastic mix of habitats including woodland and grassland, rich floodplains, swampy mires and fens, providing habitats for a amazing range of wildlife.

There is an internationally important population of Greenland white-fronted geese which winter on the site and currently they are surveying for Spotted Crake which have a very specific breeding pattern. It can be very easy to miss their mating season and as their habitat is in the fen on the Aber Bog, they are extremely hard to find unless you hear them calling. They’re also hoping to increase the pied fly catcher numbers in the woodland which is an ongoing project and the reserve is home to the Scottish Dock, a plant that is found nowhere else in the UK.

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.

Our week began with a thorough tour around the reserve to experience the scale of the site and see the variety of habitats that are managed and why. We firstly headed towards the Aber Bog, a beautiful fen meadow home to an array of bird life, butterflies, moths, otters, and deer. It is currently covered in a blanket of Valerian and Meadowsweet and I couldn’t help but stop to look out across the horizon every time I was walking there.

Our plan here was to help bush whack back the vegetation on the bund paths around and through the fen. This allows the public to access the area, but also manages their route to control and reduce habitat disturbance.

Once through the fen, we arrived at Ring Wood. The Oak woodland is dominated by both sessile and pedunculate oak trees. Birch, holly, rowan and hazel are among the other trees found in this woodland habitat and a beech plantation surrounds. It provide a rich habitat for invertebrates, birds and mammals, along with an amazing array of fungi, mosses and lichens. Oak woodland of this age will often have been planted to be used for bark tanning but now are often protected with site designations due to the unique temperate Scottish rainforest habitat that exists.

We carried out woodland surveys across the reserve, looking at both tree species and canopy cover. As well as the oak woodland, alder, ash and willow are other dominant species we logged. On Tuesday we worked alongside Becky’s volunteer work party and some LLATTNP volunteers. Our tasks were to monitor the woodland trail for any dead wood that could potentially be dangerous, remove silver birch saplings from the orchid meadow and in Ring wood, we picked out some of the larger oak saplings which needed to be protected with tree guards. The beech, holly and oak all self seed quite successfully but unfortunately for the oak, it is the tastiest! As it’s an oak woodland, Becky wanted to try and help the saplings along the way. Hopefully in time, they will be able to set up a management plan to look at controlling the less flavoursome beech.

Throughout the week, we were quite consistently keeping an eye out for a few non-native species which grow around the reserve. Predominately Himalayan Balsam, Monkey Flower and Giant Hogweed. Luckily we didn’t find much. I think the guys last week might have done all the work! Good news for the reserve, and us.

We also carried out some Bracken pulling both on the reserve, and across the Loch at RSPB Inversnaid on the wettest day of the week! We did however get to go on a boat trip which we were all very excited about, and we visited the new RSPB visitor centre there (not yet open).

We spent the sunniest day of the week helping Ami and Struan with the butterfly survey. This follows a set route around the reserve each week and we logged ringlets, meadow browns, small pearl bordered fritillaries, large whites, green veined whites and a freshly emerged tortoise shell. We also saw hundreds of peacock caterpillars feeding on nettles across the Aber bog.

There is a weekly moth trap which is set up overnight and checked in the morning and the range of fungi growing in the woodland habitat is vast. My identification skills need work but I have definitely learned so much from having had a week on site. It has been great spending time with a knowledgable team and I am hoping to return in August for a second work experience opportunity.

If you haven’t yet visited the site, I really can’t recommend it enough. It is a charming and peaceful spot teaming with life.

The visitor hub is also now on site and is open on Saturday and Sunday 10am – 3pm until October 2016. There are guided walks at 11am and wellies are definitely necessary! The paths are still being created so it gets very muddy and uneven underfoot.


Week 12 – One Week, One Wall

Dry stone walling is an ancient craft, using only stone with no mortar to build them. After some research, it seems there are several methods of constructing dry stone walls which vary across the world. They were used as field walls or boundary walls by the Celts as a way of stock-proofing animals or marking out crop fields. The next main period of wall building began in the early Middle Ages, from Anglo Saxon to Viking times. In this period the field system really developed. Most older walls would have been constructed from stones and boulders which had been cleared from the fields during preparation for agriculture where as the more modern walls are likely to be built from quarried stone brought in.

We spent the week with Gordon Kydd at a site on Luss Estates in the heart of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. Gordon’s background is in fine art and his methodical approach to walling gave us the opportunity to really understand each process properly. I really enjoyed seeing the wall progress over the week and how important the visual aesthetic is. It is quite different to the stone work we have previously done on paths, as rather than working from above, you need to constantly be looking at the front face of the wall.

Our main site was on quite a large stretch of flat ground where a small wall was already standing. We were going to continue the wall by about 12 metres, diverting it in font of the tree and curving it round, building a cheek end to finish.

To begin, we set the base stones into the ground to make a solid platform to build up from. These are large boulders which make the widest part of the wall. We started with a width of 22″ at the bottom, and by using a string as a guide, the wall gradually narrows to 13″ at the top.

Smaller stones are used as chocks in areas where the natural stone shape is perhaps more rounded or there are gaps. The key is to never have running joins, for example, two small stones need covered by one large and so on. The wall is built up to the desired height course by course, and about halfway up, through stones are placed into the wall which span both faces and sometimes stick out at either side as a feature. These help to bond what would otherwise be two thin walls leaning against each other and they greatly increase the strength of the wall.

Tapering the wall as it gets higher also strengthens it considerably and any gaps are carefully packed with smaller stones known as hearting.

The final layer on the top of the wall also consists of large stones, called copes. Like the through stones, these cope stones span the entire width of the wall and prevent it breaking apart. They sit on top of coverstones which provide a large, flat, stable surface for the copes to sit on top.

The cheek end was slightly different, as rather than joining onto an existing wall, it was finishing off the wall completely. It was a really enjoyable piece to build as the stone needs to be more specific to create a squarer, neater and tighter finish.

As well as our large stretch of wall, Gordon thought we would benefit from carrying out a small repair job on an already existing wall. This was a really satisfying morning as we got to see how quickly something can be transformed. The farmer also brought out his three collie puppies for us to meet, so obviously, this was my favourite day!

This week has been a great experience, having the chance to do something completely new and seeing our progress over a week. I never imagined that in 5 days I would be able to say that I had built a 12 meter long drystane wall. I really enjoyed the week with Gordon. He was an excellent teacher. Very patient and meticulous about the process and genuinely loves doing it!

Week 11 – Trainees Unite!

IMG_4912At 1245 metres (4084 ft), Cairn Gorm is the sixth-highest mountain in the UK. It has given its name to the whole range, although these hills are properly known as Am Monadh Ruadh (the Red Hills) rather than the Cairngorms. Cairn Gorm is the most prominent of the mountains, but it is not the highest.

It has a marine polar climate as a result of its elevation and proximity to the North Atlantic which keeps summer temperatures low and winter temperatures narrowly below freezing. It is home to a number of bird species, including dotterel, ring ouzel, ptarmigan and snow bunting and mammals such as mountain hare and red deer. Wildflowers found on the mountain include dwarf cornel, cloudberry and butterwort and for many of these species, Cairn Gorm is one of their key strongholds.

Head Ranger Nic Ballivant was kind enough to take us on a lead walk on Tuesday leaving from the car park and beginning by heading up the Windy Ridge path. The main reason for our walk was have the opportunity to see a real mix of different path techniques and for him to show us where repairs had both succeeded and failed along the way. This photo shows how the power of water really destroyed this section of the path towards the Cairn Gorm summit. It is some of the worst damage I have seen so far.

IMG_4882After reaching the Ptarmigan building at the summit, our route took us down the Marquis Well path. A light touch path through a lot of stone which was almost a little too vague and was quite hard to follow a defined route. We then went down the Western Approach path, entering the Abernethy NNR managed by RSPB which took us to the head of the Coire Raibert. Nic told us this path was built originally by a very early path team run by Bob Aitken and further down, there had been some more recent work, continuing the tough and still quite light touch work. It was a very ‘knarly’ descent and probably some of the hardest hill walking i’ve done. It brought us down to Loch Avon and standing on a beach about 40mins after summiting a mountain was quite a bizarre experience!

Once at the Loch, we headed for the Shelter stone. Known in Gaelic as Clach Dion. The boulder is held up by many smaller stones to create a hollow underneath that can sleep about ten people. The resulting cave has been used as a refuge for centuries. The floor is flat enough for sleeping although many find that having a 1360 tonne balanced rock immediately above their noses just a little too claustrophobic! We all signed the guest book whilst having our lunch and Nic explained that there is evidence to show that in the early 1930’s there were on average 50 people a day visiting the site. Now they are lucky to have 50 people a year, making you wonder what the paths must have been like back then!


From the Shelter stone, we climbed back out of the valley on the Coire Domhain path. It was a leg burner, bringing us to the Rim of the Northern Coires. We then descended back down the Goat path. A really exciting route back down but with a real danger of falling stone and with a back drop of some incredible and intimidating rock faces which are very popular with the the more extreme mountain climbers. I think i’ll maybe give that a miss.

This brought us all the way down to meet the Coire an t-sneachda path (which takes you up Ben Macdui) and arrived safely back for a brew after about 6.5 hours. Suitably weary!

We also stopped into the Loch Garten Osprey centre. Part of the Abernethy NNR and run by RSPB, it is surrounded by the largest remaining area of Caledonian Pine forest and provides a real opportunity to get up close and personal to these amazing birds from inside the specially built hide. Since 1958, 46 nests have produced chicks with 102 birds fledging by 2015. The birds began to be identified by 1975, and up to now, there have been 7 different resident males and females. EJ, the nesting female we saw is 19 and has been returning to site for 13 years. She has produced the most fledglings. 23 by 2015, and if the two new chicks she has with male bird, Odin successfully fledge, that takes her up to 25!

As well as our walk, we had an opportunity to meet our counterpart trainees who are based up in Aboyne. We spent some time on the hills having the chance to get to know each other and of course, it all ended with a good old battle of the trainees football match. (Our team won, obvs!)