Hiding the hard work

2 Herdwick tups in winter, Seatoller, Lake District

The snowy weather that lies beyond the office window today may have put a temporary stop to our upland path repairs, but it won't keep me from spreading an important message about the sustainable and yet largely hidden work that we do on the Lake District fells.

A quiet and reflective Borrowdale lies beyond the office window
A heavy snowfall lies beyond the office window covering fields and trees beyond.
A quiet and reflective Borrowdale lies beyond the office window

Room with a view

Set in front of a hazy backdrop of distant fells are snowclad pines and larch, standing like winter watchmen on the nearby field boundary. Hardy Herdwick tups bend double against the blizzard. A bramble bush that resembles an icy web of spiders' threads harbours a confused pair of blue tits that had begun an early attempt at a nest in the previous week’s unnaturally warm weather.

This winter ‘onding’ (old northern English dialect for heavy snowfall) puts a dampener not only to the usual hustle and bustle of the valley but also to the pace of our work.

Not your average winter

Standard winter work for an upland ranger is off the fell tops and down in the relative shelter of the valleys. This year is a little different.

We’re building tree cages in which to plant the forests of the future up at the top end of the Langstrath valley, alongside constructing a handful of small experimental sheep exclosures atop Thorneythwaite fell which will help us monitor what happens to the vegetation when grazing pressure is reduced.

If you’re thinking both of these projects have a certain ‘uplandy’ feel to them you’d be right and this means it's too dangerous for us to attempt in today's snowy conditions, hence why I'm sharing my reflections instead.

Number two of the 100 tree cages we're building in the Langstrath valley, only several thousand nails to go!
Three rangers assemble a four sided tree cage using fenceposts and rails
Number two of the 100 tree cages we're building in the Langstrath valley, only several thousand nails to go!

The importance of appearing idle

One lesson that is at the forefront of my mind may sound a little strange; it is the importance of appearing idle. There's no other job I can think of where so much work is put into making it look like you have done absolutely nothing! We even return to check our previous work occasionally to make sure it still looks like we were never there in the first place. When we meet visitors on the paths, they are often confused, simply thinking the paths are as old as the hills never realising our new repairs are beneath their feet. That’s when you know you’re doing a good job.

30 million boots

In order for the Lakes to remain the special landscape that we know and love, the paths that cross it must be maintained - we have upward of 15 million visitors a year, that’s a potential 30 million boots! This causes a lot of wear and tear with erosion further increased by the ever reliable weather.

Any repair work must have the minimum amount of impact on the landscape with the maximum amount sustainability; it must also 'fit' the surrounding landscape without detracting from the view and provide the walker with enough of a visual incentive to stick to the path.

The all important before the team get creative with their stonework.
A badly eroded sectin of path shows visible damage from water and erosion from walkers.
The all important before the team get creative with their stonework.

Our job, the more I think of it, is a fine balance of many opposing factors.
Our part in this long cherished landscape will always be necessary so long as it continues to be walked, ran, biked, rode, swam, farmed and loved by a worldwide collective of outdoor enthusiasts and peace seekers.

We’ll soon be hand-filling bags of stone for the coming season of path repairs again, so if you see one of our bags on your travels spare a thought for the seldom-seen folk that fixed the path on which you tread, taking care to make sure it looks like they were never there.

Just two weeks after the repair it's like we were never there
The previously damaged section of path is repaired with a ramp of stone creating a gradual slope for walkers.
Just two weeks after the repair it's like we were never there