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29 Aug 2017

From hands to helicopters

A helicopter hovers in a bright blue sky, with a long cable dangling down.
Some surprising techniques are used to ensure the lightest touch on our footpaths.

Chances are, when you’re exploring Torridon or hiking up Ben Lomond, you don’t notice the handiwork of the National Trust for Scotland footpath team – and that’s exactly the way it’s meant to be. You won’t see many handrails or escalators up our mountains! But there are a lot of clever techniques and structures being employed to keep our mountain paths accessible to as many people as possible. Upland Path Manager, Bob Brown, explains:

‘One technique we use is stone pitching, or “steps”, in steeper ground to stabilise a slope and provide a solid walking surface. We tend to build boulder pitching, so each stone has a tread of about the size of a boot. However, you see only a small amount of the stonework in most path features; to keep the stones secure they are dug in, with two-thirds of the stone below the surface.

‘Erosion caused by rain can be a huge problem, so ditches are used as natural gutters. Waterbars, a kind of stone structure, are placed diagonally across paths to guide surface water into the ditch, protecting the path surface. Each bar takes a whole day to build – this includes gathering all the stone, digging the ground, fitting the stones and landscaping afterwards.

‘Prioritisation of work is critical, so that we don’t use our limited resources in the wrong place. Path design is a very important factor. Often water is the key element and an innovative design can be required to reduce water pressure on the path, even before we have started to build. Much of the design work I carry out is “off path”, sometimes at quite a distance, in order to reduce or slow water pressure.’

Sometimes, the footpath team requires more extreme assistance, and that’s when the helicopter is called in. Bob explains:

‘Helicopters are an extremely helpful tool at remote sites. When local material is scarce or too sensitive to use, we’ll import material from elsewhere on the mountain, making sure to match the stone type, etc. A helicopter can move a ton of stone several kilometres in minutes – although it’s an expensive business, it is much cheaper, safer and more practical than getting a person to move that material the same distance.

‘Helicopter lifts are factored in from the very first inspection of a site and are always a last resort; I never use them unless it is cost effective to do so. There is a lot of logistical, health & safety and environmental planning required before a helicopter can be used, but we have been working with them for a long time now. We work with pilots and ground crew who fully understand our needs, and they always help make the day go well.’

The biggest problems our footpath team face are the pressures of resources and time. The small team look after the entire Trust network of upland paths (over 400km), and also support many other Trust spaces and places with advice and guidance. The invaluable support of our Footpath Fund donors helps to ensure the precise and difficult work of footpath maintenance is carried out now and for years to come.

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Footpath fund team pushing a stone >