Ben Nevis DiaryPublished: 18th May 2017
Our Nevis land manager Alison Austin has been charting the seasons for the Mountain Pro magazine. Read about her reflections on autumn 2016
I’m not naturally a pessimist but I do tend to expect a never-ending downpour at Nevis, usually coupled with wild winds from the west, as we move from summer to autumn. It didn’t happen this year, meaning the broadleaf trees held their leaves longer than usual with the golden colour of the birch trees in the glen as glorious as we’ve seen for years.
The weather wasn’t the only unexpected event. I ended up rather busy trying to deal with the aftermath of a significant rockfall in Steall Gorge on September 13th. Over 100 tonnes of rock and some soil came crashing down from the cliffs of Meall Cumhann, which sits above the Steall Path. Part of the rocky buttress broke off and some of the boulders which crashed and bounced their way down the hill were the size of large cars! Many even made it 300 metres down to the river bed, altering a stretch where kayakers often put in for their descent of the River Nevis.
This left considerable damage in the woodland - but what was most worrying was how unstable some of the blocks and downed trees were immediately above the path.
Lochaber Rescue Team were on site that night and again the next morning. We were unsure whether anyone had been caught up in the rockfall but thankfully no one was. The rescue team used a drone to search from above looking down on the boulders that had crashed down to the river for signs of anyone caught by the rockfall. They also captured some great images of loose rock higher up on the mountain. Their images helped Thistle Access - the local contractors we employed to make the area safe - assess the extent of loose and dangerous material above the path.
Unfortunately we had to close the path until we could get into the affected area. Communicating what was happening to the public was important, so I worked with the Trust’s communications team to create signage for the local area and to get word out via the press and social media that the Steall path was closed to the public for safety reasons. We also shared suitable alternative routes for those still looking to access the Ben and surrounding area.
Luckily, thanks to the Trust’s supporters, we had some money available through our Wild Ways path appeal fund that we could immediately allocate to the safety work and path repairs. Once a colleague and I had agreed the work required with contractors, we were able to get moving with repairs quickly.
The first stage was to descend the slope checking for any loose rock with the potential to move or fall. Boulders were stabilised and any trees that were dangerously overhanging the path or caught up behind loose boulders were cut. This took three weeks.
We then reopened the path and the maintenance team worked for the next three weeks to repair the damage that the boulders did to the path. It was an expensive and time-consuming job, but one that we were able to respond too quickly. Events like this really do highlight the need for ongoing support. In Scotland the majority of path work repairs by organisations like the Trust is funded by public donations.
One knock-on effect of all this was that the Mamore Skyrace, an international high-altitude running event with a global following, had to quickly plan an alternative route. I’d worked with the event organisers in the months previously to agree a route through the gorge, while l making sure any environmental impact or public safety concerns had been addressed. It had been scheduled for the weekend after the rockfall, an so had to be diverted. It was unfortunate, but the event team managed to arrange an alternative route so the race could still go ahead - and plan to revert to the route through the gorge in the future.
Having the path closed made it a little difficult for our stalkers to access the land beyond Steall for our annual deer cull. The stag season runs from July 1st until October 20th but we tend to concentrate our stag cull near the end of the season. On Ben Nevis Estate we cull around 10 stags every year. The cull is a little higher than the annual recruitment (birth rate) for the area and is designed to keep the deer numbers low enough to allow naturally regenerating native woodland seedlings to mature, eventually leading to a flourishing of teh gorge's ancient woodland. We’re seeing trees in this area slowly regenerate because of the approach we are taking and have examples from other properties we take care of where increased deer culls have resulted in similar success.
In November I travelled to meet colleagues from the Three Peaks Partnership which includes representatives from Scafell and Snowden. It was a long journey but well worth it because we often get good ideas from each other and we work together to try to manage the enormous impact of charity events on the three highest mountains in the UK. The Three Peaks Partnership website which we put together last year gives guidance on carrying out a challenge responsibly and also gives plenty of safety information and advice for groups to think about before they set off.
But these events still have an enormous impact and we are trying to establish a culture of putting something back towards upkeep of paths and facilities on the mountains. On October the 8th the Real 3 Peaks event did an immense job of clearing lots of litter from the summit of Ben Nevis and raising awareness of the impact we have on the mountains.
The rest of this autumn is filled with wrapping up reports and analysing some of the ecological monitoring that was carried out of the summer. This all helps me make plans for next year.Hopefully, I will get some days out on the ground as well.
We have a short work party planned for a weekend in January to get Scots pine planted in the Steall area because this is the one native species that is not regenerating naturally here. We will have to put up some protection in the form of small fenced exclosures as these planted seedlings are particularly appealing to hungry deer in winter – so some careful planning has been carried out to make sure these don’t look too intrusive.
I walked out with one of our trustees in November to look at the repair work at Steall and we were rewarded with the sight of two eagles circling above the car park. I often see them here in the winter and it’s a lovely reminder of the cycle of the seasons to see them again. It’s been a busy year and I’m looking forward to a well-earned festive break, and the chance to take stock of how the year went while making some time to plan for the new year.
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