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

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