Managing a mountain
By Alison Austin, Nevis Manager, John Muir Trust
Looking after a mountain as iconic as Ben Nevis, when so many people are connected and invested in its future, is a challenge and a privilege. It can however feel like the mountain’s managing me….
My role as Nevis Manager for John Muir Trust involves working with experienced and enthusiastic colleagues, peers and experts to make sure we can continue to encourage and support access, while retaining the mountain’s essential wildness and important biodiversity.
Our work at the John Muir Trust is guided by three freedoms: freedom for nature to repair itself; freedom for people to enjoy the benefits of wild places; and freedom for communities to thrive in wild places. Caring for a busy place like Ben Nevis, with its important habitats and species, through all three lenses can be a challenge at times.
The land in our care covers an area of 1,761 ha (4,158 acres). It includes the upper part of the southern and western flanks of Ben Nevis (at 1,345m), and a chain of high peaks to the east (Carn Mor Dearg 1,220m, Aonach Beag 1,234m, Sgurr Choinnich Beag 963m). These slope down to the Water of Nevis where the river plunges from the grass flats at Steall through the Gorge, a densely wooded cleft with rich native woodland and remnants of Caledonian pine forest.
There are many important and protected habitats and species on Ben Nevis Estate. Data gathered from annual habitat and species monitoring underpins and supports any actions on the ground. We can’t monitor everything, so we have to think strategically about the most efficient methods to gather the data needed to make decisions that will benefit those species and habitats.
Our current focus is to monitor the impact of browsing on heathland and woodland. The data we collect helps our contracted team of stalkers manage deer in key areas where we would like reduce high browsing impacts on the ancient native woodland. This protected Caledonian pine woodland is also an important rainforest habitat, so liaising with other native pinewood managers and the Alliance for Scotland Rainforest helps us make best decisions and explore any funding or access practical advice or support.
We monitor blanket bog and peatland recovery on a site we restored in 2022. The area was surveyed with support from a Peatland Action grant and then wooden dams, coir logs and a stone dam were put in place to reduce the drainage and erosion of this remote area. It was an expensive and challenging contract to write and manage as the site is so remote. All the material was helicoptered in and we had a great team on the ground who were happy to work with our volunteers to complete the restoration.
Recruiting and looking after the volunteers on site required a lot of planning but was very satisfying for all involved. It has been lovely seeing those exposed peat hags slowly rewet, while smaller pools remerge behind coir dams and start to recolonise with sphagnum. It’s specially exciting to record for the first time the presence of the rare Northern Emerald dragonfly this summer, which relies on those pools.
We also monitor water vole, carry out breeding bird surveys, bat surveys and monitor mountain ringlet butterflies when time allows, often it’s the mountain that decides as it throws challenges at us, emergency pathwork or high visitor impacts to deal with!
Over 160 000 people walk up Ben Nevis every year and more follow the narrow path through the spectacular gorge to Steall waterfall. It’s really important to maintain that access but not to dilute that wild experience with too much infrastructure. Weather and increasing footfall are having alarming effects on our upland paths. Our fantastic fundraising team find resources to allow me to engage ongoing maintenance contracts and specific repair contracts. All of these are expensive many requiring helicopter lifts of materials which given the weather and number of people can be really difficult to organise. Just this year our flights were delayed so many times we have had to postpone some major repairs to the Ben Path until 2024 which is frustrating and that’s what I mean when I say the mountain manages me!
Recently we have taken on a Seasonal Rangers to support our Conservation Officer and work with the Nevis Landscape Partnership Seasonal Rangers through Glen Nevis; talking to visitors, encouraging leave no trace behaviour, sharing tips on where to go, giving advice, updating interpretation, carrying out path maintenance, carrying out surveys to find out what visitors need but also clearing litter and dirty camping campfire rings. It was a very busy summer for them.
Alongside our practical work, we have a number of strands for our local community to connect with us. A team of Junior Rangers from Lochaber High School carry out a range of practical and monitoring tasks with us; gain First Aid and Leave no Trace qualifications and their John Muir Award. It’s been fantastic to hear what’s important to these young people and this has really reinspired me in my day to day work.
We collaborate with an NQ course in Countryside Skills with Ranger Training offered by UHI and host the students on habitat management and path maintenance elements of their course. They get on-the-ground practical experience alongside their qualification and we get support and help with our essential tasks on the property.
Our Conservation Officer runs a series of volunteer days during the year, mostly on path maintaince and litter clearing on Ben Nevis. We try and have a presence at local events to share what work we are doing and gather support and members which supports the John Muir Trust’s policy and lobbying actions for wild places.
As our land holding is so discrete, it’s really important to work with neighbouring landowners to try to make a significant impact on habitat and species health and connectivity at a landscape scale. This will help ensure that these important woodlands and montane habitats can not only survive and regenerate, but will thrive and withstand the challenges of biodiversity and climate crisis. My role is to build strong and trusting relationships, explore potential shared partnership projects and agree principles and delivery agreements among multiple partners.
This takes time but - having seen success of the Nevis Landscape Partnership in delivering action on the ground across the wider Nevis area bringing together multiple landowners and how other partnerships across Scotland and the UK have come together for change - I am convinced this is the key to making the large-scale changes we need to allow important mountain habits to thrive and for our communities to be part of that future.
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