Looking after Ben Nevis

Published: 21st December 2017

Seventeen years after taking ownership of Ben Nevis, we reflect on the history of the mountain and our plans for the future

Ben Nevis from Beinn na Gucaig

On the longest day of the millennial year – 21st June 2000 – Duncan Fairfax-Lucy handed over the title deeds of the Ben Nevis estate to the John Muir Trust at a ceremony in Fort William. Legend has it that the Ben should not change hands if there is snow on it – which there was on that day. However, as Mr Fairfax-Lucy was (and still is) - a member of the Trust, the legend was preserved and remains true!

Mr Fairfax-Lucy, who inherited the mountain in 1979 after his family bought it as an investment in the 19th century, sold it to the Trust because he believed the Trust “would manage it well”. Indeed he sold it to the Trust under the market value of £500,000. When asked about the comparatively low price, he said; ''I didn't want to make a fortune out of the sale, but I want to make sure that the public will benefit. I felt the John Muir Trust were the right people to take it on for the future.'' 

He added; "The John Muir Trust is particularly specialist in looking after wild spaces. I know the Trust will look after the Ben. It's in their interests - that's why they were formed. I have confidence in their management.”

Nevis volunteers plant trees in an exclosure Jan 2017

Seventeen years on the Trust is proud of its record of caring for Britain’s highest and most beloved mountain landscape. It has been, and continues to be, both a great privilege and responsibility on behalf of the nation and its members. Extending across 1,761 hectares (4,300 acres) of the Ben Nevis and Glencoe National Scenic Area, the Trust looks after the summit and upper slopes of the Ben, as well as Carn Mor Dearg, Aonach Beag and Sgurr Choinneach Beag. In addition to these peaks, Trust land includes the densely wooded Nevis Gorge, its footpath and the grassy flats alongside the Water of Nevis.

The wild landscape of sweeping mountain ridges, tumbling burns, quiet corries and vibrant woodlands is rich in wildlife and designated as a Special Area of Conservation.  From ptarmigan and snow buntings on the summits, mountain ringlet butterflies on the slopes, water voles in the meadows and ancient lichen-clad trees in the gorge, the species found here are amongst the rarest in the country. However, the mountain faces many challenges, from climate change to damage by grazing animals and constant visitor pressure. Every year, the path to the Ben is walked by over 100,000 people. Active management is essential to ensure that fragile natural habitats and wildlife are protected, and people can continue to enjoy this very special wild place long into the future.  

Nevis an steall ban

The Steall gorge footpath

One of the real highlights of the Trust’s land is the path through Steall Gorge. It has existed for centuries, providing access to the small settlement of Steall (now a ruin) 1km east of the Steall waterfall and to upper Glen Nevis and Corrour. It is thought the current path was probably formed in the late 1920s. It starts from the car park at the Glen Nevis road end and traverses up through a narrow, steep sided gorge after a couple of kilometres where the terrain opens out and there are views of An Steall waterfall.

NevisSteallfootpathThe 2 mile footpath has been described as “a spectacular two-mile walk up Glen Nevis through gorges and meadows to the epic Steall Falls”. W H Murray, the renowned mountaineer and author, wrote; "The Nevis gorge, taken alone, has no counterpart in this country and is internationally famous... Its Himalayan character arises from a peculiar combination of crag and woodland and water, which is not repeated elsewhere in Great Britain. The whole is one of the scenic wonders of Scotland."

Although the path was constructed historically, it is still a rough and rugged path to walk and that is part of its character. The number of walkers using the path combined with the steep terrain and heavy rainfall of the area means that the path gets a lot of wear and tear. These ongoing processes of erosion would lead to the path crumbling away, a loss of vegetation and soils, and the path becoming less accessible. As a result, path maintenance is an ongoing requirement for the Trust.

Working towards a wilder landscape…

The Trust’s long-term goal is to restore natural processes so that a mosaic of habitats develops, from the river banks through to the highest summits. Our vision of flourishing native woodlands, grasslands and uplands, with their full diversity of wildlife, birds, wild flowers and insects, is one that our staff, volunteers and members have worked towards since taking ownership of Ben Nevis in 2000.

Ali Austin NevisThe Trust has brought together an active coalition of conservation partners and people who love this magnificent landscape and has worked with them to produce a new management plan for Ben Nevis. This sets out five key actions and goals over the next five years (2018 – 2023), as follows:

Step 1:  Encouraging natural regeneration of native woodlands;
Step 2:  Protecting designated sites and habitats for rare species;
Step 3:  Developing our volunteer network;
Step 4:  Increasing community awareness & education; and
Step 5:  Improving visitor awareness & access.

The plan also identifies the key people and resources needed to ensure that each step is completed efficiently and effectively. The updated management plan will be published in the New Year.

If you would like information about how to support wild land conservation work at Nevis, please email partners@johnmuirtrust.org

For more information about our work on Ben Nevis, and to watch a short film about the land, visit our Ben Nevis property page