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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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

 

Coming and going

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been volunteering full time with the Brecon Beacons & Monmouthshire National Trust for three months now. When I started, fresh from half a year in New Zealand, I had no practical skills except what a few weeks with the National Park and Elan Valley and a few stints in rural Australasia had given me. Within a few weeks I had settled in, already enjoying learning the skills needed in upland conservation as part of the Access & Maintenance team. The tasks I have done have varied between painting the Omega sign at the top of Pen y Fan, to maintaining and clearing culverts.

Beth painting what is possibly the most photographed National Trust sign.

Beth painting what is possibly the most photographed National Trust sign.

Using the local sandstone to try and prevent water eroding the paths is a large part of what we do, whether it’s spreading scalpings on the Pont ar Daf path, or using blocks to construct side ditches and culverts. It’s this part that I really enjoy; the chance to get down in a ditch and create something that not only is useful, but will last one hell of a long time.

However, to do stone pitching, you need stone, and one of the most exciting days (of the year apparently!) was the airlift. Postponed and reorganised, one windy Tuesday morning saw a group of us waiting for a lift in a helicopter up to Bwlch Duwynt. We had bagged twenty-one tonnes of specially selected stone at Cwm Gwdi, and have had eighty more tonnes dropped off near Base.

My job was to let Rob know when the chopper appeared so he could direct them in, while I stopped walkers from getting too close. Not that it was that necessary; people were transfixed and I spent the day being in a million selfies and video clips.

Beware, flying rocks.

Beware, flying rocks.

Unfortunately my time with the Trust is soon coming to an end. I’ve secured a place on a trainee warden scheme with the National Park, but who knows, I might be back!

Beth – Volunteer Ranger