Paths to the Future?

Scotland's network of paths may face additional wear and tear in the face of differing weather patterns dictated by climate change over the coming decades, a new report by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has suggested.

Paths on Beinn a' Ghlo - already suffering in the climate we've got, 175 kb
Paths on Beinn a' Ghlo - already suffering in the climate we've got
© Dan Bailey

Path infrastructure could deteriorate and become unstable due to changing conditions, says the report from SNH, the Government's advisor on all aspects of nature and landscape across Scotland. And as the impacts of climate change become increasingly evident, challenges in the planning, design, construction and maintenance of our paths need to be addressed they claim.

Weather conditions most likely to impact the paths network include intense rainfall, air frost/freeze thaws, changes in snow cover, storms, storm surges and sea level changes. Predicted wetter winters and more intense rainfall could damage path surfaces, making them trickier to walk on and less easy for people to use. Drains may have insufficient capacity to cope with increased water, and bridges possibly may be washed over and even washed away. Saturated soils might cause adjacent ground to slump onto a path and, in severe circumstances, even remove the path in a landslide. Longer growing seasons resulting from predicted warmer winters mean vegetation growth may be more vigorous. In upland areas this may help stabilise path edges, while lowland paths will potentially require more frequent strimming.

The SNH report confirms what many walkers will consider obvious - that properly designed paths constructed to best practice standards and adapted to local conditions, with a regular maintenance programme, are best suited to withstanding pressures associated with predicted changes to climate.

One of the key recommendations in the report is that those responsible for paths – local authorities and other path managers – assess climate change impact risks on existing path networks and prioritise appropriate action. This could include installing additional or larger drains, changing the surface type when paths need repair or re-aligning paths onto higher ground through the planning process.

The research advises it is important to carry out assessments when planning new path projects to ensure they are built in the best location using the most sustainable design.

Caroline Fyfe, recreation and access officer, said:

'Scotland's paths network are an important asset in providing the benefits of improved health and well-being for the nation and it is clear that more time and effort will have to be invested if they are to continue that pivotal role over the coming decades.'

'The weather has a large part to play in influencing the condition of our paths, but key to ensuring that paths and path networks are resilient to the predicted chronic impacts of climate change is making sure that they are properly planned, constructed and maintained. The paths industry should try to ensure best practice techniques are used in construction and particularly that there is an adequate level of ongoing path inspection and maintenance. Climate change makes this even more important than before.'

'While it is difficult to definitely point to changes in the condition of paths as climate change-related, and therefore count the costs of repair and maintenance schemes, we need to start preparing for the potential consequences. This report allows all those involved in funding, building and maintaining our paths network in Scotland to embark on the processes needed to ensure that our paths continue to contribute to the health and wellbeing of our nation.'

However, whatever the future may hold the current state of heavily used upland paths may be of more immediate concern for many hillwalkers. Path erosion is already very evident in many areas, caused by a combination of footfall pressure, inadequate maintenance and the weather. Left unattended badly damaged paths turn into rubble scars across the hillsides, with the attendant loss of delicate upland soils and plants. But even where paths have been extensively upgraded in Scotland and elsewhere the results have not met with universal approval. Some walkers find certain recently constructed paths in popular areas such as the Lake District to be out of character with the hills, unnecessarily intrusive and over-engineered. If the SNH report points to a general trend of more hands-on path maintenance then it may be desirable to establish a degree of consensus that balances aesthetics with engineering. Many different methods and materials can be used in path construction, and for some walkers the road to hell may be paved with other things besides good intentions.

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