It is becoming ever more challenging to look after our upland paths, but hope lies in working together. This was one of the key messages from the BMC conference on upland paths, ‘Mending Our Ways’, attended by more than 90 delegates.
Conference chairman Ken Taylor kicked off the conference with a Chinese proverb, said to be more of a curse than a blessing: “May you live in interesting times.”
These are indeed interesting times, with Brexit, climate change, sustainability, the crisis in public health and political upset dominating the headlines. The humble mountain path might not seem to have much to do with these things, but as the conference discovered, its fate cannot be separated from them.
As the BMC’s recent Mend Our Mountains campaign highlighted, the challenges of constructing and maintaining upland paths have grown in recent years, with funding cuts, worsening weather and increased visitor numbers heaping pressure on national parks and other bodies charged with their upkeep. But as the possible implications of things like Brexit and climbing at the Olympics loom, are there new challenges – and opportunities – ahead?
Fortunately, there are many passionate and skilled professionals working hard to meet these challenges and opportunities in lots of different ways, as was apparent at the conference.
With snow topping the North Pennines and autumn sun lighting the fields of the Eden Valley outside, more than 90 delegates from the UK and Ireland packed into the room at the Rheged Centre near Penrith last month for a wide-ranging day covering everything from fundraising and campaigning to upland ecology and practical path techniques.
The conference follows said campaign, Mend Our Mountains, which earlier this year crowdfunded more than £100,000 for work on upland paths on iconic mountains across England and Wales and attracted national media attention.
The professional background of delegates was diverse, and included path builders, recreational users including walkers and mountain bikers, and representatives from government agencies, conservation charities and other National Governing Bodies (NGBs) like British Cycling .
All heard a range of engaging speakers (click on links to download PDF versions of presentations - more to be added as they become available):
Upland Path Work Projects in Scotland’s National Parks - Dougie Baird, Cairngorms Outdoor Access Trust
Protecting and promoting the National Parks - Naomi Conway, National Parks Partnerships
A lively and wide-ranging Q&A followed the presentations, which re-emphasised, added to and challenged points made by the speakers. Themes included: how to effect a cultural change among outdoor users, fostering a sense of collective responsibility for protected places; the importance of having professional full-time fundraisers; the need to continue to pressure government for adequate core funding in addition to raising money; and concern over the impact of bulldozed tracks over moorland made by grouse moor managers.
Expertise, money, manpower
Summing up the BMC’s take on the day, conference chair and member of the BMC’s Access Management Group, Ken Taylor, said: “Upland paths form part of the common underpinning of all mountain activities, but maintaining them requires expertise, manpower and money.
“This conference was designed to draw together people involved in providing all of these things in an effort to share ideas, encourage best practice and identify the best way for the BMC to direct its efforts. It was fantastic to see such a diverse range of delegates, some of whom journeyed quite a distance to be there.
“We are thrilled with the success of the Mend Our Mountains campaign, which demonstrates the crucial role for innovative forms of fundraising. But this is only the start of a longer-term engagement by the BMC with the challenges of looking after the upland environment.
“There are risks on the horizon but also opportunities. Perhaps the changes to agricultural subsidy payments that may arise from Brexit, for example, offer a chance to reframe government support for maintenance of rights of way. And climbing at the Olympics gives us an opportunity to restate the huge public benefits of adventurous activity as a means of justifying support.
“Above all, it is vital at this time that all stakeholders come together to exert our influence on government in order to protect and increase core funding for precious landscapes. The BMC has a strong track record of representing recreational users in the political sphere and we have an important role to play in building the evidence base for upland paths. As a sector we must have a strong, unified voice.”
Matthew Bradbury, chair of the BMC’s charity, the BMC Access and Conservation Trust (ACT), also drew attention to ACT’s role in financially supporting path work. “The Mend Our Mountains campaign originated within ACT as a previously-untried idea, using crowdfunding to power a national fundraising effort for upland paths and raising £103,000 initially. Following its success we are currently working on a follow-up campaign next year where we hope to go bigger and better. Watch this space.
“In addition to Mend Our Mountains, any organisation in the UK can submit a request to us to fund work which will benefit access and conservation in the outdoor environment. We welcome requests and with the pressures of the current time we encourage people to see if ACT can help.”
Following the conference the BMC will:
Take insights and opportunities from the conference to inform the next stage of the Mend Our Mountains campaign, to be announced next year.
Continue to coordinate and facilitate the sharing of information, expertise and capacity among the diverse stakeholders in upland paths across the UK and Ireland, who face similar challenges and opportunities.
Seek to build the evidence base for the benefits of upland paths and recreational infrastructure for wider society in order to strengthen efforts to lobby and pressure parliament, and ensure we have a unified voice as a sector.
Continue to play a leading role in promoting the challenges facing upland paths in the media and the wider public.
Investigate opportunities to support other innovative ideas to fundraise and look after the landscape, e.g. through the BMC Access and Conservation Trust.
The Access and Conservation Trust
The BMC's charity – the BMC Access & Conservation Trust – promotes sustainable access to cliffs, mountains and open countryside by facilitating education and conservation projects across the United Kingdom and Ireland.
By educating climbers, hill walkers and mountaineers to enjoy outdoor recreation while minimising their impact on the landscape, conserving the UK’s upland resources, and campaigning for improved access rights, ACT enables future generations to continue to enjoy outdoor activities and the physical, mental and social benefits they bring to individual lives and society in general.
WATCH: the Mend Our Mountains: Make One Million campaign film