The pandemic has led to a surge in people venturing out into the great outdoors, and the need for social distancing means walkers give each other a wide berth. But as a result, mountain paths are being badly eroded, cliffside tracks are crumbling and winding trails through woods and heathland are turning into wide, sticky morasses.
Rangers at one spot on the edge of Bristol have reported that paths 2 metres wide have been transformed into 12-metre muddy highways.
The National Trust is flagging up problems at beauty spots ranging from the Lake District to the south coast of England and warning that the issue is likely to become even more acute during the winter unless people alter their behaviour.
It is advising walkers to wear appropriate footwear, stick to the line of the original path, stay in single file and step off and back on to the trail in the same place when navigating past other hikers. One ranger suggested people should relish the “squelch” of muddy puddles rather than creating new routes around them.
Some of the paths most susceptible to deep erosion are in the Lake District, where routes on England’s tallest mountain, Scafell Pike, and fells such as Catbells, near Keswick, have been badly hit.
Joanne Backshall, the manager of the Fix the Fells programme in the Lakes, said: “It’s fantastic to have witnessed so many people putting safety first as they step aside to allow a safe, social distance for fellow walkers. What people might not realise however, is that stepping off and then continuing to walk off the path is starting to erode the landscape at a rapid rate.”
A section of pathway less than 500 metres in length can cost up to £40,000 to repair, especially when helicopters are needed to lift and drop stone in.
Backshall said: “Once vegetation is lost through erosion, soil and stone can quickly wash off the hillside. This loss of habitat and degradation can affect species like the mountain ringlet butterfly or ring ouzels.”
Rangers at Leigh Woods, a 120-acre nature reserve on the outskirts of Bristol, have watched aghast as paths have widened by as much as 10 metres in places.
Visitor numbers doubled at some points in 2020 and the plan is to put in a £70,000 pathway made of limestone with a protective membrane underneath to mitigate the damage.
In south London, more than 1 million people – a record – have visited Morden Hall Park in 2020. The ranger Richard Newman said: “We have seen some of our pathways increase in width from 2 metres to 6-8 metres.”
Lloyd James, a ranger at Dunwich Heath on the Suffolk coast, said paths had doubled in width there, putting ground-nesting birds such as the skylark at risk.
The National Trust, whose finances have been stretched by the coronavirus pandemic, anticipates it will need to raise extra money to repair damaged pathways.
Visitor numbers have increased by 300% at the Nymans garden in West Sussex. Chloe Bradbrooke, the lead ranger, said people straying from paths were putting wildflowers such as bluebells, wild daffodils, wood anemones and lesser celandine at risk.
She said: “You will find surprisingly firmer ground in the middle of a puddle than to the side, and with the right footwear you can savour the squelch.”