Fix The Fells – Unsung heroes and heroines of Lakeland

Lake District National Park
The beautiful Lake District National Park.

“Neither paths or eroded scars are natural but to my mind a properly built path is less intrusive and does less damage to the environment.”
CHRIS TOWNSEND, AUTHOR AND LONG DISTANCE BACKPACKER



I’ll be the first to admit that some of the paths that have been repaired by Fix The Fells of the Lake District National Park in recent years aren’t the best to say the least. They appear neither to protect or conserve local habitats or make for easy or safe walking. For example, the path that leads up to Red Tarn via Oxendale in the Langdale Valley is a bit of a death trap in wet weather let alone in winter. The stepping stones are short, closely-knitted and slope downwards – encouraging users to walk either side of the path to avoid ‘dancing on ice’ and taking a considerable tumble. This route was undertaken for repair almost 10 years ago.


And of course more recently there has been some controversy concerning their work on the route up to Sail which lies between Crummock Water and Derwentwater, appearing more akin to a motorway for hikers which has had a considerable negative effect on the aesthetics of this high sloping hill.


All said and done, I’ve got to know the rangers of the Fix The Fells team very well over the past year or two and despite some initial misgivings I’ve been enlightened to how they go about their work currently, in the past and future. They work tremendously hard in all weathers and terrain ensuring paths are suitable to their local environment while protecting and caring for the Lakeland fells.


I’ve become a great admirer of their craft, care and passion for the uplands of Cumbria and I have to say much of the criticisms they receive are based upon short-sighted thinking (including my very own) – even if some of their techniques have not been looked kindly upon in years gone by and deservedly so if I’m honest. But they’re always learning, trying new ideas, with their hearts in the right place and we should all tip our hat off to the teams for that alone. Even the volunteers too!


So now I’m back home, settled and spending more time with my family instead of the fells, I thought I’d share some information and thoughts with you from the Fix The Fells team and hopefully readers of this blog will gain some insight into what they do and why – and perhaps appreciate the bigger picture with regards to their place within the Lake District National Park.

I for one certainly have and consequently intend to continue my support. One of the many unsung heroes and heroines of our beloved fells.



“I am mainly happy with the work that Fix the Fells do. Over the years their work has greatly improved. Now they try to make the paths they repair today follow the profile of the land so that they are less conspicuous when seen from a distance. The new path up Yewbarrow is a fine example. We cannot police the paths but we can try to educate walkers, runners, event organisers and others into thinking about their footfall and how it will impact on the fells.”
DAVID POWELL-THOMPSON, TV RESEARCHER AND MOUNTAIN GUIDE



WHY DOES FIX THE FELLS EXIST AND HOW IS IT FUNDED?


Tanya Oliver, Programme Manager Fix The Fells: 15 million people visit the Lake District every year. Many of these people walk in the beautiful fells and whilst it is fabulous that so many people are doing that, it does lead to erosion of the path network. This is particularly true in more popular areas that can sometimes see tens of thousands of people on a single path every year. This erosion has led to scars as wide as 30 metres and gullies as deep as 3 metres in places. This loss of fragile vegetation and habitats doesn’t just look ugly but it means soil is washed into the water networks, silting up lakes and tarns and endangering rare fish and plant species.

Our work repairs the erosion scars and helps protect the ecology and archaeology or the uplands (our work on Martcrag Moor has helped to protect a Neolithic axe area for example).

In the past, the paths would have been repaired and maintained by the Romans, shepherds, miners and farmers. Now this task falls to us. We are protecting this heritage of often ancient paths.



“Legacies and individual donations are a crucial part of our funding.”


We are funded entirely by donations and grants. We have no fixed funding each year (so you won’t find an ongoing budget for our work in the National Trust (NT), Lake District National Park Authority (LDNPA) budget etc although they support us in raising funds and through the NT we receive donations). Legacies and individual donations are a crucial part of our funding. Nurture Lakeland, one of our partners, raises money through us via Visitor Giving (where visitors contribute by adding £1 or £2 to their booking fee when they book accommodation, or through donations in boxes in cafes etc). We work on the basis that literally every penny counts.

Grants come from BMC (British Mountaineering Council), Friends of the Lake District, Ramblers, Natural England etc. These are small grants but extremely welcome and help significantly. We need to raise c£350k every year to keep going. £500k would be the ideal so we could have a few more rangers and fly a bit more rock but at £350k we can keep going without losing the team and their skills and keep flying rocks.




WHAT TECHNIQUES ARE USED FOR FOOTPATH EROSION AND WHY? WILL THE WORK EVER BE COMPLETED?

Work in progress on Striding Edge.

Tanya Oliver, Programme Manager Fix The Fells: Here is a link to our techniques http://www.fixthefells.co.uk/what-we-do/path-repair-techniques It outlines stone-pitching, sub-soiling, our preventative work etc.

All the techniques are traditional. We haven’t invented any of them (including the zig-zags and stone-pitching). Some date back many centuries (Romans etc). We do of course use modern tools where we can, We use helicopters to fly the rock. This is actually the most cost-effective and eco-friendly way to get the rock to site as it means less trampling on the ground and we only fly rock short distances (all rock is sourced locally to match the type of rock found locally and Natural England tell us which rocks we can use so we don’t damage fragile sites). We sometimes use a small digger to do sub-soiling. Other times it is done by hand. When we use a digger, we always have rangers and volunteers completing the landscaping afterwards.

Our work is also dependent on the path designation – footpath, bridleway etc. We don’t do any work on any path that has 4×4 access.

We would love to be perfect. This just isn’t possible however and sometimes we have to learn as we go along. Our techniques have developed over the years. The style on stone-pitching from 15/20 years ago for example, we wouldn’t use now. In the past, stone-pitching sloped more and now we try and reduce the slope so it is easier to walk on. Also, repairing paths is a combination of science and art. Opinions on the techniques between the rangers do not always agree but if we are in doubt, rangers spend a lot of time on site visits, getting other opinions and looking at other examples outside the Lake District (we recently went to the Cairngorms for example).


“We also have volunteers and members of the public being vigilant and letting us know what work needs to be done.”


The solution varies according to gradient, available stone, the landscape, level of use etc. We also monitor paths to see if they “heal” by themselves over the winter where there is less use or if a path goes out of favour and therefore is used less. Sometimes when we have surveyed a path the answer is to “do nothing”. Other times we purely do landscaping to remove additional paths where they have braided and returned the site to just one path. We use “hump and hollow”, which naturally deters people from straying off the main path and once the grass seed and turf we have moved grows back, you would never know we had done any work.

The work is determined by the rangers (sometimes with input from non-Fix the Fells rangers (LDNP and NT) and Natural England representatives etc depending on the site. Once the rangers have recommended the work, the work programme for the year is taken to the Fix the Fells Board for approval (this is chaired by the National Trust and has reps from all the partners as well as a volunteer rep, Richard Fox and myself). The work programme then goes online. I email the link to various interested parties when it is live including Ramblers groups, bridleway associations, mountain bike associations etc so they know what we are planning.

We also have volunteers and members of the public being vigilant and letting us know what work needs to be done. I have had several people this year ask us to work on the path to Red Pike from Buttermere for example. Volunteers will highlight where a drain is collapsing or a landslide has washed a section of path away etc. All this feeds in.

As well as repair and project work, we spend a lot of time maintaining the work we have done. Our volunteers go on drain runs (clearing path drains of stones and vegetation and sweeping stone-pitching of loose stones and gravel) to help keep water off the path (a key factor in preventing erosion). They also work on smaller maintenance projects without supervision (such as a recent project on the path to Easedale Tarn). These projects are specified by the local ranger and the local ranger will check progress but the day to day work is done by volunteers.

All the time people continue to walk on the fells (which I hope is forever as I certainly intend to for many more years) there will be a need to protect the fells from erosion so Fix the Fells will always have a job to do. Project work done 15-20 years ago will sometimes need attention or replacing, new paths start to emerge, the existing network will need maintaining.



SOME PATHS THAT FIX THE FELLS HAVE WORKED UPON HAVE BEEN HEAVILY CRITICIZED IN RECENT YEARS. FOR EXAMPLE, THE ROUTE UP ONTO TO SAIL IN COLEDALE. IS THE CRITICISM JUSTIFIED?


Richard Fox, National Park Ranger Fix The Fells: Every upland path is different. The vegetation, aspect, location, usage, type of user, feel, drainage, gradient, geology, soil depth is all different. Sometimes paths are straightforward to repair and there is plenty of material available – for example Stickle Ghyll in Langdale was a mammoth repair job in its day, but there was no alternative and the result is a success.

Sail was one of the hardest sites we’ve worked on. Before work was carried out, the erosion was significant and expanding (14m wide in places, with most people using the vegetation to the side and significant spill of material onto vegetation below). The site is a Special Area of Conservation for its superb heather vegetation, but this was being destroyed by the eroding path, so Natural England were particularly keen that we repair it.

Unfortunately, the gradient on Sail is such that it is too steep for a straight down aggregate path, but not steep enough to deter people from going straight down a series of zig zags. We had to try to build in ‘containment’ with the path works. Containment is the physical or visual deterrent that prevents folk from choosing to walk off a path – we always try to make it look as natural as possible.


“…if people showed a bit more respect for the hills and used paths without cutting off corners, we could have made a far more subtle repair of Sail.”


Coledale Hause before…
The result, after many site visits and much discussion, was to create a set of raised zig zags, that would be easy enough to use, but have awkward enough sides so that folk would stay on them. Zig zags are common in the hills – there are plenty in the Ullswater valley that stand out particularly well after snow melt. Of course, many of the old zig zags have long since grassed over due to having fallen out of use many years ago. Heavily used modern zig zags stand out more because the surface cannot re-vegetate due to constant pressure of use.

Frustratingly, if people showed a bit more respect for the hills and used paths without cutting off corners, we could have made a far more subtle repair of Sail, without the need to raise the path. Unfortunately where we have done this in the past, people all too soon cut straight down the vegetation and create new, unsustainable straight line routes.

I can understand people’s dislike of the end result, but with hindsight and further site visits with current colleagues and peers, there still does not appear to be much different that we could have done. The erosion is gradually stabilising and recovering – it will be a long process on this soil as it is very free draining without the soil cover, and therefore suffers from drought – believe it or not! Once the vegetation has recovered, it will look a lot better, but I expect the mischievous will always be able to stand at the top and take a picture looking straight down that shows all the surface. Whatever people don’t like about it though, it needs to be remembered that before we intervened, there was steadily increasing erosion and a growing scar, and now there is very little.

Coledale Hause after!
Tanya Oliver, Programme Manager Fix The Fells: We take any criticism seriously and this is why we have gone back to Sail so many times to see what else we can do. We will do some more landscaping over time etc to help where we can to blend it in more quickly. However, we have worked on over 200 sections of path in just the last 10-12 years so it always feels a bit demoralising for people to take exception to one or two paths (which I understand) and to therefore write the whole of Fix the Fells off and make generic criticisms.

We always offer for people who aren’t happy with what we have done to come out with one of our rangers (or telephone) to talk through what we do and why and for people to express their concerns so we can have a proper discussion rather than trying to discuss it in 120 characters on Twitter after a harsh comment. Many people refuse to find out more however. Those that do come out with us, sometimes change their mind and sometimes don’t about a specific path but they all go away understanding more about what we do and why and appreciating the massive variety of work we do so being more sympathetic the project as a whole.





“The big issue is impact. How do we sustain the general wild appearance of the fells while giving people the liberty they desire. Unavoidably grey-matter has to be used to subtly landscape paths to channel feet and prevent washaway paths creating long-term scars. The process has been a long learning curve and many early pitched paths were a nightmare to follow, from them came criticism that lingers on”
MARK RICHARDS, LAKELAND FELL RANGER SERIES AUTHOR




DOES VOLUNTEER WORK FEATURE PROMINENTLY WITH FIX THE FELLS’ EFFORTS AND WHY? HOW CAN FOLKS GO ABOUT VOLUNTEERING?
Volunteers at work on the fells.

Tanya Oliver, Programme Manager Fix The Fells: Our volunteers are simply fabulous. Yes they feature prominently. We have around 85 volunteers and each and every one of them is appreciated. As with any volunteering programme, there is a smaller group within that 85 that do a lot of the work (mainly because they are able to commit more time for one reason or another). In our case it is around 40 volunteers.

Our volunteers are highly trained and skilled including on path repair techniques and navigation etc. The main focus is on drain runs (as mentioned above) as this is the best way to keep the work we have done in good shape by reducing the amount of water on the paths. Drain runs are organised twice a week but any qualified volunteer can arrange them whenever they like. They are mainly done in groups but there are some routes that individuals can choose to do on their own if they wish. Our volunteers pretty much organise themselves according to the agreed work programme. They arrange where they meet, the routes they do and who is going. This is done according to a Path Tracker system that lists all the paths to maintain and designates them as red, amber or green, depending on how often they need doing each year. This is all done online and through an online calendar system.


“Volunteers are not “free” however. They kindly gift their time for free but there are still costs of travel, tools and ensuring the appropriate outdoor protective clothing is available for them.”


In 2014 up until the end of November, our volunteers had completed over 300 drain runs and gifted over 1,400 days working in the uplands. This was our best achievement since the Fix the Fells volunteer programme began in 2007.

As mentioned in a previous answer, because our volunteers have developed such strong skills, we also hold unsupervised work parties, where those volunteers who have been trained by rangers to undertake stone-pitching, landscaping, drain building and other techniques agree a project with the local Fix the Fells ranger and then organise and deliver the work without day-to-day supervision. Rangers keep an oversight through site visits and dialogue with the volunteers. This means the rangers have more time to focus on the bigger projects and maintenance.

Volunteers are also represented on our Operational Working Group (where the ranger supervisors meet four times a year to talk through how things are going and discuss the work programme for the following year) and on the Fix the Fells Board (the one with the partners on).
Volunteers are not “free” however. They kindly gift their time for free but there are still costs of travel, tools and ensuring the appropriate outdoor protective clothing is available for them. They bring a lot of passion, fun and insights to the programme though as well as their time and skills. Fix the Fells is a much better programme with them being part of it and I can’t imagine life without them!

If people wish to get involved, we ask for a minimum of 12 days each year (this is because of the time and resources we invest in training and outdoor clothing and tools). How those 12 days are arranged though is very flexible. We ideally need long-term volunteers rather than ad-hoc days because of the level of skill involved. There is more information on our website on how to get involved but the best way is to join us for a “taster” day, where people can come out with our volunteers and see what it is like before they decide if it is something they want to get involved in. These taster days are informal and you just join one of the existing drain runs.


And then generally, here is a link to our FAQ’s as it might help your readers with anything else they want to know: http://www.fixthefells.co.uk/who-we-are/faq/




Chris Townsend, author and backpacker: The popularity of the Lake District Fells means that paths get a real battering and can quickly become ugly eroded scars. Constant maintenance and repair is the only way to minimise this. I can understand why some people don’t like the look of Fix The Fells work, especially when paths are new, but I’d rather see a properly built path than an ever-widening, multi-channelled eroded mess that is horrible to look at and horrible to walk on. Neither paths or eroded scars are natural but to my mind a properly built path is less intrusive and does less damage to the environment. Of course walkers can aid Fix The Fells by sticking to paths and not cutting corners or walking along the edges. And when going cross-country, something I love, walkers should spread out and not create the beginnings of a new path that others might follow.

David Powell-Thompson, TV researcher and mountain guide: I am mainly happy with the work that Fix the Fells do. Over the years their work has greatly improved. Now they try to make the paths they repair today follow the profile of the land so that they are less conspicuous when seen from a distance. The new path up Yewbarrow is a fine example. There are many popular paths in The Lakes that are getting wider and wider as walkers seek an easy line. Where paths like this are repaired walkers should stick to the new paths and keep off the verges so allowing some regeneration. It takes many years for land to recover. Take for example Brown Tongue in Wasdale. There was a massive scar straight up the front of The Tongue and then a pitched path was built alongside the beck and the land over which the old path went started to recover. Over 30 years later it is still recovering; it is not difficult to trace the old path even now. That pitched path was one of the first to be built and many lessons have be learnt since that early job. Size of stone used, angle that the stones are set etc. But now this path is showing wear as walkers step off the pitched path onto the fell; one because of the volume of people climbing Scafell Pike and two because the path is not the easiest to walk, especially in descent.

So walkers setting off for a summit should, in main, follow the paths and avoid the fell on each side, but then there are those, like me, who like to wander away from the paths just to explore the whole Fell. Often the summit is not an objective and people like this should not be discouraged. There are magnificent views to be found away from the high points together with places of human interest; sites of events and memorials. Pools and falls on many becks and gills (ghylls) are not to be found near paths.

Sheep have created many paths, none going to the summits, and to follow them often leads to remote places. Sheep don’t like getting their feet wet so their paths mostly follow a dry lines.
On the other hand new paths across fragile land are created by marathon events which set navigation courses. 40 runners going between checkpoints will create a path that will be visible for years. For example there is now a line from Glade How the outlet from Greendale Tarn that was created by such an event a number of years ago. People laying hound trails year after year have created their own paths, but these are not intrusive and are often overlooked by the casual rambler.
We cannot police the paths but we can try to educate walkers, runners and event organisers and others into thinking about their footfall and how it will impact on the fells. The last thing we should do is stop people exploring the fells after all its in law that this is open access land.



Mark Richards, author of the Lakeland Fellranger series: There has been an exponential growth in the popularity of fell walking over recent decades which shows no sign of abating. The social and health benefits are unquestionably excellent. The big issue is impact. How do we sustain the general wild appearance of the fells while giving people the liberty they desire. Unavoidably grey-matter has to be used to subtly landscape paths to channel feet and prevent washaway paths creating long-term scars. The process has been a long learning curve and many early pitched paths were a nightmare to follow, from them came criticism that lingers on. I am very relaxed about most recent work, especially the digger substrate inverted paths that snake up fells where once casual trails had created unsightly swathes. Many have been the critics of the Sail serpent path, yet in a decade it will have melded into the general scene. No, my concern is getting solutions to many of the thorny issues paths, like that tripping off the summit of Buttermere’s Red Pike. We need to nurture a shared sense of the ownership of care. How we walk is every bit as important as the extent we dip into our pockets and give monetarily to the cause. Fellranger stresses the importance of giving something back for all the pleasure the fells bestow.


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