James Forrest, fundraiser for Fix the Fells, looks back on a year of protecting the Lakeland fells and how a grant from the Gannett Foundation, the charitable arm of The Westmorland Gazette's parent company, helped pay for that work

WE ARE incredibly lucky in the South Lakes to live in a landscape of such drama and beauty.

The Lakeland fells serve as a stunning backdrop to everyday life. For the intrepid among us, they are a haven for hiking, running and outdoors adventures; for others, they simply provide scenery that is heart-warming to gaze at.

But have you ever wondered how the mountain paths of the Lake District are looked after? Or how erosion is kept in check? Or who carries out such work?

This is where Fix the Fells comes in.

Fix the Fells is a partnership programme between the National Trust, Lake District National Park Authority, Natural England, Lake District Foundation and Friends of the Lake District.

We protect the Lakeland fells from erosion by repairing and maintaining a network of more than 330 upland fell paths throughout the UNESCO World Heritage Site. This network covers 400 miles of paths, including routes to some of the UK’s most popular walks, including Scafell Pike, numerous Wainwrights, and parts of the Cumbria Way and Coast to Coast.

This work is carried out by 25 highly-skilled rangers and 125 trained volunteers known as lengthsmen, using traditional techniques and locally sourced materials.

Our teams only undertake repair work where it is necessary and we intervene as little as possible but as much as is necessary in the fells. And in 2018, thanks to a £3,000 grant from the Gannett Foundation, this approach and work was especially successful in the South Lakes area, with practical conservation work carried out in and around the Windermere, Coniston and Ambleside areas.

But, before we get to that, it is perhaps important to question: why is this work needed?

Well, the stunning Lake District fells are a paradise for walkers, runners and mountain bikers, attracting more than 19 million visitors annually.

But sadly the pounding of millions of recreational users is devastating this incredibly fragile mountain environment.

Erosion is a never-ending problem. Grass, vegetation and soil are being trampled, exposed and washed away. This leaves the fells plagued by ugly scars and deep gullies. In the past some erosions scars were up to 30m wide and 4m deep – and without the constant work of Fix the Fells we would risk seeing a return to this level of damage.

Erosion is having a deeply worrying environmental impact too. Habitats for endangered mountain species, such as parsley fern and woolly hair moss, are being destroyed. Sediment is being swept into becks, tarns, rivers and lakes, changing water acidity levels and playing havoc with fish and plant life.

Vital carbon sinks such as peat bogs are being damaged, causing CO2 to be leaked into the atmosphere.

These problems are only getting worse as episodes of intense rainfall are becoming more common in the Lake District, as evidenced by the devastating impact of Storm Desmond in December 2015.

The work of Fix the Fells helps to tackle these problems in a variety of ways by: removing erosion eyesores that can be seen for miles; improving water quality for plant and fish life, by reducing sediment run-off into stream, rivers and lakes; protecting upland habitats for rare plant species such woolly hair moss; and preserving important carbon sinks.

Many of these outcomes were achieved in 2018 in the South Lakes, thanks to the £3,000 grant from the Gannett Foundation.

The money, which was used to purchase tools such as shovels and gloves as well as pay for volunteer expenses, enabled our lengthsmen (the term lengthsmen comes from medieval times when men would be paid to walk the length of the parish and repair any roads and unblock ditches) to carry out a comprehensive programme of activities during the year.

For example, the lengthsmen completed 150 ‘drain runs’ – a practical conservation activity, which involves clearing out mud and stones from the drains along the length of a mountain path.

Such drain runs were completed on popular mountains such as Old Man of Coniston every two months, Gummer’s How near Windermere every quarter and Wansfell near Ambleside every quarter too.

Additionally a programme of 15 volunteer-led work parties were run regularly throughout the spring and summer to repair and remedially improve the very top sections of the path leading directly to the summit of Wansfell.

All of this work saw more than 100 volunteers contribute more than 500 days of volunteering in the South Lakes region – a massive achievement, evidencing a remarkable commitment to and love for the landscape of the fells.

My colleague Barry Capp, the head volunteer of the lengthsmen scheme, told me it had been a very successful and productive year in the South Lakes. As he put it in his own words: “The Fix the Fells volunteer lengthsmen have enthusiastically made a very major contribution to the maintenance and repair of the fells in the South Lakes this year .”

Fix the Fells is incredibly grateful to the Gannett Foundation for its financial support. But, as a charitable project, fundraising is a constant battle and we rely on the generosity of people to support this vital work with donations.

We need to raise £500,000 a year to repair and maintain the fell paths to protect the biodiversity and beauty of the Lakeland landscape. The Lake District’s upland path network is a shared asset which everyone benefits from, but no-one pays to look after it.

If you would like to make a donation, please visit www.fixthefells.co.uk and follow the instructions online.

Many of Fix the Fells’ fundraising activities are carried out by the Lake District Foundation, a registered charity that specialises in raising money for environmental and wildlife projects across Cumbria.

If you have a business that would like to support Fix the Fells, or would like to run a fundraising event or challenge for Fix the Fells, please visit www.lakedistrictfoundation.org or contact James Forrest on 01539 822622.