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On June 21, the John Muir Trust will mark 21 years of looking after the UK’s highest mountain for the benefit of people and nature.
The conservation charity’s work focuses on managing visitor impact, carrying out wildlife and habitat surveys, encouraging the natural expansion of native woodland and connecting with the local community.
A challenge for charity, a hike with friends, or a personal triumph – Ben Nevis makes memories for thousands of people every year.
A symbol of the West Coast adventure scene, it draws in valuable tourism revenue for local businesses, while the glens and forests around it offer important habitat for several species of birds and mammals, some of which are listed as threatened.
Not an easy balance to strike when between 150-155,000 visitors from all over the world walk the same tracks up and around the UK’s highest mountain every year.
Yet against this backdrop, golden and white-tailed eagles, pine martens, water vole, snow bunting, ptarmigan, and rare butterflies such as the mountain ringlet and chequered skipper can all be found thriving here. As can 75 different species of lichen, 33 of which are considered rare in the UK.
The John Muir Trust took over the care of 1,761 hectares (equivalent to 2,766 football pitches) within the Ben Nevis and Glencoe National Scenic Area in 2000. As a charity dedicated to the experience, protection and repair of wild places – this was an opportunity to showcase that nature-led conservation and high visitor numbers are not
‘What we want to do is make sure the Ben and the Glen continue to be accessible, but also to make sure these areas maintain some of their essential wildness – from the quiet of hidden corries to the abundant wildlife in the ancient woodland,’ said Alison Austin, the John Muir Trust’s Nevis Manager.
The land managed by the trust starts from where the main mountain track starts to zig zag up to the summit, and includes the valley that connects Steall Falls to the knife edge of the Càrn Mòr Dearg ridge, and east to the summits of Aonach Beag (1,234 m), and Sgurr Choinnich Beag (963 m). Within this sits 24 hectares of ancient woodland, vital breeding habitat for birds and bats.
For the past 15 years, the John Muir Trust has been monitoring the species and habitats in the area – collecting data which informs conservation and management plans. This provides a fantastic opportunity to engage school and youth groups. The charity has led 74 educational field trips and 64 children’s nature events in recent years, engaging with 22 primary and three high schools in Lochaber.
The John Muir Trust’s highly popular annual Wild Poetry Competition has seen more than 4,000 English and Gaelic entries to date. In 2021, Cooper Spence from Inverlochy Primary, Edie Crosbie from Kilchoan Primary, and Anna Fothergill and Lucia Young from Bunsgoil Mhalaig all won first places in their categories for their poems about wild places and wildlife.
‘Inspiring young people to get involved with wild places is something the Trust feels very strongly about,’ said Fort William’s Nathan Berrie, JMT Nevis Conservation Officer.
‘We all have a responsibility to care for these places that are so important – for our economy, for reducing the impacts of climate change, and for our own wellbeing.
‘You could argue that young people have more at stake here than anyone else, as the people that will inherit the consequences of the actions we take now.
‘They’ve all got a right to get involved and have a say.’
Managing the impact of the thousands of visitors each year on such a fragile landscape takes collaboration, which is why the Nevis Landscape Partnership – a collective of 15 Nevis stakeholders and landowners including the John Muir Trust – was established in 2002.
In 2014, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded the Nevis Landscape Partnership £3.9 million to deliver 19 projects over five years which has contributed to continual path maintenance, cairn repair, and bridge work in the Glen, amongst other conservation activities.
‘A lot of folk who visit Ben Nevis might not realise how much work goes in to maintaining the paths they walk along,’ added Alison, ‘but path erosion from people taking shortcuts or walking on the very edge of a trail very quickly escalates with wind and rain, impacting vegetation and scarring the landscape people have come here to enjoy.
‘Walking the Ben is free, but it costs around £7,000 just to maintain the paths annually and can cost in the region of £30,000 to carry out essential repairs every couple of years. Often it can be much more.’
Volunteers have made much of the visitor impact reduction possible. Over the past 19 years. Alison estimates there have been over 1,000 days of work carried out by volunteers – the equivalent to a full-time employee for four years.
In that time, she estimates around 280 bin bags of litter have been removed from the mountain.
‘We couldn’t do what we do without the amazing volunteers, who give up their time to help us strike this balance for people and wildlife in the Ben and the Glen,’ she concluded.
‘This mountain has got something for everyone, and it’s a fantastic place for the Trust to showcase our vision for wild places that benefit local communities, businesses, visitors and wildlife.’