Erosion control on our beautiful mountains

Hi everyone I’m Huw, an uplands ranger in the central Brecon Beacons working in the beautiful surroundings of southern Britain’s highest mountains, Pen y Fan (886m) and Corn Du (873m).  A huge part of my job is erosion control, so I thought I would update you on what we have been up to.

Erosion is the greatest threat to the enjoyment of our mountains.  Upland areas are a fragile environment owing to the harsh climatic conditions.  The vegetative covering takes many years to establish but is easily eroded.  Our main consideration is to prevent further erosion and restore damaged areas in order that the mountains may continue to be enjoyed by generations to come.

Due to the increase of walkers on one of our busiest paths, the Pont ar Daf (with an average annual footfall of over 360,000) sections of the path need widening.  This work has recently been carried out with the assistance of a working holiday group.  It has been achieved using a number of methods including stone pitching, an ancient technique pre dating the Romans, and involves burying large boulders upright in the ground with each layer of stone overlapping the last, much like cobbling on a larger scale.  This is a very time consuming feat, each one metre square section of stone pitching can cost up to £150 and take one day to construct.  We then resurface the path with soil or scalpings (Old Red Sandstone which has been crushed into gravel) then landscape the surrounding areas.

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Volunteers hard at work amongst the many walkers

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Protecting the newly seeded ground

We have erected a number of fences/hurdles leading from Corn Du towards the saddle between the two peaks.  In order to prevent further erosion we have attempted to re-vegetate this area numerous times, but to no avail.  Due to the location, elements and footfall defeating us, it has stayed bare.  These hurdles should protect the area, while the seed and fertilizer put down with assistance from our working holiday group takes hold.  This process is likely to take a couple of years so these hurdles will stay in situ until then.

Recently the two Bronze Age burial cairns located on the summits of Pen y Fan and Corn Du have become severely eroded and were beginning to become undermined due to ever changing weather conditions and the feet of thousands of visitors.  These cairns were excavated in the early 1990’s by a team of archaeologists with the support of the National Trust, where Bronze Age artefacts were uncovered including a bronze spear head.  With the help of our two upland full time volunteers, Hazel and Nathan, who
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Nathan & Huw repairing the cairn

work closely with us carrying out various conservation tasks in and around the Brecon Beacons, we have repaired the cairn on Corn Du using stone pitching to reinforce and stabilize the structure.  Once, the summits of Pen y Fan and Corn Du were heavily vegetated and there are accounts of times gone by where people could shelter from the ever changing weather conditions behind two metre high peat hags.  Now there is very little vegetation remaining and the summits are predominantly bare, having eroded down to the Old Red Sandstone bedrock.  Even the fascinating ‘ripple’ marks, the remnants of the seabed that take us back millions of years when the summits of the Beacons were beneath the sea and thousands of miles away from their current location, have begun to erode away.

These upland mountain paths are not purely intended to assist the walker with a solid foothold and clear line to follow, but are actually designed to protect the mountain from your feet.  These hard-wearing, constructed paths take thousands of people to the summits of our highest peaks every year, while preventing further erosion.

If you happen to be out and about walking the Beacons and come across us, please do stop and say hello!

Huw – Uplands Ranger

 

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Combating erosion, a constant battle

Easter is always a busy time of year for the National Trust and this was no exception for us with 30,000 visitors through the gates at Pont ar Daf and Storey Arms during the month of April.  Sadly the visitors to the central Brecon Beacons did leave evidence of their trip by scattering lots of rubbish including 239 bags of dog poo, 109 empty plastic water bottles as well as an empty bottle of champagne and drinking glasses.  Over the Easter break, National Trust staff and volunteers picked up 11 full sacks of rubbish from the slopes alone.  We’re also very grateful to those nameless walkers who continue to pick up rubbish when they are out and about.

Visitor numbers to the central Brecon Beacons continue to grow every year and 2016 saw an increase of over 30,000 people through the gate at Pont ar Daf, the most popular access route to Pen y Fan, compared to the previous year.  And these busy periods are not just restricted to holidays such as Easter.  Each winter, once the snow has fallen, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwalkers avoid the slippery compacted ice on the footpaths and spread out looking for better grip, thus stripping the once vegetated areas below and creating wide, bare scars.  As the snow melts and the rain falls, the soil is then washed away leaving behind ruts which fill with rain water, eventually creating gullies.  During the thawing of the paths, loosened soil gets picked up by walkers on their footwear and when combined with rainfall the soil loss on the footpaths can be over 5cm deep in winter.  The lost soil takes hundreds of years to be replaced naturally; we cannot replace it as the whole area has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation, so we can only use what is in keeping with the area, and in this case sandstone.

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University of Bath students getting stuck in

Every spring and early summer we need to landscape and revegetate the areas surrounding the footpaths to try and prevent further loss of soil, in order to achieve this we rely on the help of volunteers.  In March and April we welcomed students from Strode College, Somerset and University of Bath who assisted in opening up some of the cross and side ditches.  These ditches were trampled during the winter period and this conservation work will allow the water to run away from the footpaths once again.  We have many more volunteer groups booked in for the summer period to help us with vital erosion control work.

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Strode College students working hard

The footpaths continue to erode as they are mainly subsoil paths so we need to put a harder wearing surface on top.  This summer we are hoping to airlift 200 tonnes of sandstone scalpings onto sections of the Storey Arms and Pont ar Daf footpaths.  All this work costs money and at present only money received from National Trust member subscriptions are paying for it.  Looking ahead, the income that will be generated from the new proposed car park at Pont ar Daf will assist towards the future financial costs of combating erosion, such an essential part of my role as lead ranger for the central Brecon Beacons.

Rob Reith
Lead Ranger

My volunteer story

Hello, my name is Lewis Robertson and I’ve been a Full Time Volunteer Uplands Ranger with the National Trust Brecon Beacons and Monmouthshire team for 12 months now and I wanted to share my experiences with you.  If you’ve been up Pen y Fan in the last year, you may have seen me working on the footpaths with the uplands team.

I originally come from the North East of Scotland and moved here to work as a volunteer after finishing my degree in Environmental Science as I wanted to gain the experience and skills necessary for a career in conservation.

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Preparing the ground ready for grass seeding & fertilising

The majority of my time has been spent working on the footpaths of the central Brecon Beacons helping to control erosion.  With hundreds of thousands of people walking the Beacons each year, it is a constant challenge to not only maintain the footpaths but also minimise the erosion to the path edges.  I’ve heard it being compared to painting the Forth Rail Bridge by visitors and that sounds about right.

 

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Clearing out culverts by hand on Bwlch Duwynt

 

Building drainage features and widening or replacing path sections are very time consuming because almost all the work is done by hand.  When stone pitching, each stone has to be carefully dug deep into the ground and set at the correct angle to match the stones around it.  It sounds simple in theory but it takes a lot of practice and skill to do it quickly.  It’s a very old technique for building a path and predates the Romans but if done well it blends into the landscape and lasts a long time.

Working on the footpaths has given me some fantastic experiences.  Most notably assisting with last year’s helicopter airlift where we moved bags of crushed sandstone (scalpings) to damaged areas of the Storey Arms path.  Not only did I get to work as part of the team on the ground but I also got to ride in the helicopter, twice! It was an amazing experience and I’ll never forget it.

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We need a lot of kit for maintenance work!

Maintaining footpaths in the uplands is very hard and physical work.  It was a little shock to the system when I first started but I soon got used to it.  I enjoy practical work and there’s a real sense of achievement to be gained from constructing stone drainage features and paths.  I myself am a keen hill walker and I really enjoy giving something back to the hills by helping to protect them.

Naturally working in the hills means enduring all weather conditions and the Brecon Beacons certainly hasn’t disappointed.  There have been times where my coffee has been ripped out of my cup by the wind and then continuously refilled by the rain but you soon forget about that on a nice sunny day.

Working in the Brecon Beacons has been an amazing experience, I’ve learned a lot and enjoyed every minute of it.  I’ve worked with some wonderful people in an iconic location and I’ll never forget my time here – highly recommended.

Thanks
Lewis

Wild Wednesday, Ponds & Footpaths

I came to the Brecon Beacons in March to start a new role as ranger for the Sugar Loaf, Skirrid and the Begwns. There was a short period of getting to know my sites, which involved me in a Land Rover with a map trying to figure out where the heck I was. After getting to grips with the layout of the land it was headfirst into a busy summer.

The National Trust protects special places for everyone, so during the summer months a lot of energy and time is poured into getting people onto our sites and caring for and enjoying the countryside. Over the summer I’ve had a lot of fun organising the family activity days we run on the Sugar Loaf, the aptly named Wild Wednesdays, which are part of the National Trust’s 50 things to do before you’re 11 3/4 campaign to reconnect children with nature. Children are able to build dens, climb trees and hunt for creepy crawlies in the stream; it is amazing to turn over a rock and find a huge Stonefly or Caddisfly nymph and receive appreciative squeals of delight (and sometimes horror). It’s so rewarding to get families outside, interacting with their surroundings and learning something new.

The Begwns, a grazing common between the villages of Painscastle and Clyro is another one of my sites. I first visited on a cold and blustery March morning and was greeted with coldly stark yet awe-inspiring views of the Brecon Beacons, but I didn’t fully realise how exceptional this piece of common land was. My second visit was at night, wearing a fetching head torch and marching out with the local Ponds Group; led by the knowledgeable Hannah Shaw of the Freshwater Habitats Trust. We visited one pond and honestly it was like an aquatic metropolis; Smooth, Palmate and Great Crested newts marched towards the pond for their nightly activities and toads blinked at us from under the vegetation at the water’s surface. The ponds on the Begwns are veritable havens for wildlife, in fact they are so exceptional they have been made a Flagship Site for Wales by the Freshwater Habitats Trust. It is part of my job now to work alongside Hannah to monitor and protect these wonderful habitats.

Something I would never have predicted I would do over the summer is fly over the Beacons in a helicopter, it was during the airlift of stone to the Storey Arms footpath that leads to Pen y Fan. Thousands of people march up the hill every year and they all take their toll on the path. The upland team spend hours stone-pitching the paths and sowing grass seed on the eroded edges. As you can imagine the effect of thousands of people requires a lot of stone, which is where the helicopter comes in. Over the course of three days, over a hundred tonnes of stone was flown up the path. Since then staff and volunteers have worked hard using that material to make the path level and comfortable to walk on to deter people from veering to the edge. Go take a look, but do stick to the path.

It has been a busy, varied and wonderful year. For now there are parts of my sites that I am still yet to explore, gates to replace, events to organise, litter to pick and wildlife to be spied.

Kate
Commons Link Ranger

 

Where have all the footpaths gone?

Over the last few years the high rainfall and snow falling nearer to spring time combined with a couple of poor years in the growing season and an increase in large groups walking the hills, have resulted with the Beacons beginning to erode once more.

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Storey Arms path suffering from rising water

In the past, walkers along with the weather had worn down some of the footpaths and the surrounding areas up to 2.5m deep. Due to a lack of funds, we had not been able to build these back up to the original height resulting in them being a catchment for snow and rain.

 

Walkers compact the deep snow turning it into ice which everybody avoids. This results in people spreading out to look for the shallowest snow to walk on leading to a new section of land being worn away. The increase in walkers causes this erosion to get deeper and wider with some areas having seen a soil loss of up to 10cm in one year. This occurs most winters.

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Pont ar Daf – walkers avoiding the compact snow

Due to the erosion, we have to revegetate the area after every winter if we want to prevent further loss of soil. But I have noticed the damage from this recent winter is worse as more and more large groups climb to the summits and continue to spread out.

 

Throughout the spring the weather

L&M NTV sitting down breaking up the ground to sow the seed.

National Trust volunteers working hard to repair the footpaths

remained cold which delayed our revegetation work by several weeks on all the major access routes, so we did not begin work until the end of May. With the help of a group from Pontypridd and London & Middlesex, these National Trust volunteers provided vital help on the path leading up to Corn Du from Storey Arms by digging ditches, breaking up the compacted ground and starting to spread grass seed and fertilizer to give the land some much needed nutrients.

At the end of June we will be airlifting over 100 tonnes of sandstone scalpings (small stone and dust) on to the Storey Arms to Corn Du path. This is the only stone we are permitted to use and we will be doing this because the scalpings airlifted 11 years ago have now all but eroded away.

Look out for the next blog from the access team where we will update you on the footpath work following the airlift.

Thank you

Rob – Lead Ranger

Working hard to keep footpaths open

As a relatively new ranger with the National Trust, I thought I would explain some of

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Trench dug and ready to lay pitching

my responsibilities and show what I have been doing. My position as part of the access team is predominantly responsible for the repair and maintenance of the Pont ar Daf and Storey Arms paths leading to Corn Du, Pen y Fan and Cribyn; here I use a number of methods to prevent erosion of the paths and surrounding hillsides, which without constant management can quickly deteriorate. 

The central Brecon Beacons have an average annual rainfall of approx. 2400mm compared with the nearby town of Brecon which on average receives just 1173mm. This level of water can rapidly deteriorate pathways as do other factors such as footfall. With over 200,000 mountain lovers visiting the highest peak in southern Britain (Pen y Fan) each year, erosion is a serious problem. To protect and combat issues like these we use stone pitching, which is an ancient method pre-dating the Romans. It involves laying large boulders in rows embedded into the paths (see below image), which is similar to cobbling but on a much larger scale and a very resilient way of surfacing a pathway.

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Boulders embedded into trench and packed with small stones and soil

We then cover the pitching with Old Red Sandstone scalpings which settles into the ground; this offers protection and a better walking surface. Along with stone pitching and scalpings, we create a number of culverts, cross and side ditches to keep the water off the paths. These are also stone laid for strength, longevity and ease of clearing out which must be done regularly.

Landscaping and reseeding grasses help us stabilise bare earth and blend in our work. I also work closely with our volunteers and those on working holidays who provide much needed assistance to maintaining the footpaths.

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A volunteer working hard on the Pont ar Daf footpath

In addition I also assist with family events such as Wild Wednesdays during the school holidays where we incorporate the National Trust’s hugely popular 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾ including activities such as building a den, climbing a tree and damming a stream, all of which are set within the woodland of St Mary’s Vale and the Sugar Loaf.

I hope you can join us for one of our events on the Sugar Loaf, starting off with our Cadbury Easter Egg Hunt on Saturday 26 March. Or if you come across me and the rest of the team working on the footpaths in the central Brecon Beacons, please stop and say hello.

Thanks, Huw Barrell
Ranger – Brecon Beacons

All change on the Beacons

Once again it’s been all change within the team this year, Jessica moved across in the summer to manage some of our lowland sites and Ben left the National Trust in the autumn, so welcome to Huw Barrell who started in July on the Brecon Beacons. He has been steadily sinking his teeth into the role but we are still one member of staff down at present to look after the Sugarloaf, Skirrid, Begwns and Abergwesyn; that will keep us busy during the winter.

We have spent a great deal of time this summer Volunteer groups building ditcheson the Pont ar Daf footpath with our volunteer groups. We have been building stone drain ditches to try and prevent the path and banks from collapsing inward and we have also airlifted 60 tons of scalpings (small stone and dust) onto the footpath to build up the surface and make it more hardwearing.

Building ditches in not such good weather

We have extended our Lenghts Group with six new members so hopefully maintenance on all footpaths will be covered. The Meet and Greet Volunteers were extended by a further two members but we still require more; Interested? Our Easter event and Wild Wednesdays with children have been very successful this year, they have all enjoyed the likes of den building and pond dipping down the Sugarloaf, we will continue those next year so look out for more details on our Facebook page and website.

We carried out a series of walks recently from Welsh Words in the Countryside on the Beacons to fungi spotting at the Skirrid, but unfortunately we had a low turnout for some of the walks. Our pond on the Begwns has become a flagship with the Freshwater Habitats Trust so we hope to have a few surveys carried out specifically looking at the endangered Medicinal Leech and White-clawed Crayfish found there next year.

Events are on the increase once again, we are now giving out licences and charging groups, who respectively charge their participants, and that money then goes towards the maintenance and repairs of the footpaths as there are no grants for such undertakings. We have also had a variety of filming take place all over our properties including BBC’s The One Show at Henryhd Falls and Iolo’s Beacons (out next year), S4C have ventured up Pen y Fan and several programmes based on special forces training, but using civilians, including Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Win. And a few adverts too.

Robert Reith