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Fixing the Fells: the campaign to save the paths of Scafell Pike

At the busiest times of year, the stream of human traffic on the Brown Tongue path never ceases – not even at night.

The route used by 100,000 people every year – as the most direct way to the top of Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain – is one of the most heavily walked paths of its type in the world. But its popularity has come at a high price.

Work to control erosion caused by the impact of countless feet on the path has been going on for 30 years and costs tens of thousands of pounds a year. It is the Forth Bridge of path repair: a job that is never finished.

But as a crowdfunding campaign to raise vital funds for the next phase of work on the path enters its final phase (closing on 21 October), it is still some way short of its £17,000 target. Path repairers are stressing the importance of success for a campaign that would enable them to futureproof a large section in the middle of Brown Tongue for several decades.

Volunteers help the Fix The Fells team repair a stretch of damaged path.
Volunteers help the Fix The Fells team repair a stretch of damaged path. Photograph: Paul Kingston/NorthNews

The crowdfunding effort forms part of a larger, year-long push to raise £100,000 for Scafell Pike as part of the Mend Our Mountains campaign, a UK-wide appeal being led by the British Mountaineering Council. It is one of 13 similar campaigns being run concurrently by Mend Our Mountains and supportive organisations across Britain. The aim is raise £1m for path repairs in a variety of locations, from Scotland to Sussex.

The British Mountaineering Council’s Mend Our Mountains campaign is also supporting Fix the Fells’ ongoing work to stabilise erosion on the route as well as the campaign to raise the £17,000 required.

Richard Fox, from Fix the Fells, leads the teams of specialist path repairers who do the arduous, all-weather work of protecting Brown Tongue and the Lake District mountains from the inadvertent damage caused by our feet. “Nowhere else in the world has the sort of pressure we have in the Lake District,” he says.

“We are really grateful to Mend Our Mountains for the work it does in supporting us. It’s important that campaigns like this succeed. There is no government funding for Brown Tongue so we rely on fundraising to keep our work on it going.”

Brown Tongue is the route favoured by participants in the Three Peaks Challenge (climbing the highest mountains of Scotland, England and Wales in 24 hours), which adds to pressure on the path. Most challengers tackle Scafell Pike in the dark, slogging up Brown Tongue as part of a procession of headtorches.

A helicopter delivers material for repair work, Ullswater Valley, Lake District.
A helicopter delivers material for repair work in the Ullswater Valley. Photograph: Fix the Fells

Brown Tongue is one of the most serious examples of a problem often found on popular hills and mountains across Britain. Left alone, erosion scars can grow as wide as a motorway, wiping out vegetation, disturbing local habitats and hydrology, and even destroying terrain features such as mountain tarns.

“If we stopped our overnight working, within five to 10 years we’d see huge scars of the sort that blighted the Lake District 30 years ago appear again,” says Fox.

Fix the Fells uses a combination of landscaping and traditional techniques such as stone pitching but the work is costly. Usable local stone often has to be airlifted from nearby slopes and as Fox says: “Our path repairers have to be skilled craftspeople who can carry out high-quality, well-designed works that blend in with the landscape and last for the long term.”

It costs about £500,000 a year to maintain all the mountain paths in the Lake District and Fix the Fells, as with similar organisations elsewhere, relies on fundraising to sustain its work.

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