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John Muir Trust
25th January 2018

Mountain Portraits | Conserving Wild Places

Throughout Winter, we will be showcasing a collection of commissioned portraits by Lukasz Warzecha, as part of our Mountain Portraits series, an attempt to highlight some of the key characters who give meaning to our work. This week, Alison Austin from John Muir Trust, Property Manager for Ben Nevis, discusses life at Britain’s highest mountain.

John Muir Trust - Alison Austin

Words by Alison Austin

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The incredible thing about working on Ben Nevis for John Muir Trust is that there are very rarely two days the same, or even two years. Having worked for the trust for 10 years now, the mountains still throw new challenges at me, and continue to reveal new sides of their character.

In the winter, it’s time for consolidation of the years’ work. Looking at our habitat and wildlife, monitoring results, planning for the year ahead and taking advantage of good days to get out.

The Importance of Maintenance & Information

Often our time is taken up with basic path maintenance on lower level paths through Steall, to keep the water off the tracks and repair damaged edges.

John Muir Trust

Similar to the lower level paths, we also provide care and regular attention to the summit path, especially when winter hits. We send regular reports and images to the visitor centre, where we provide important information to the public on the winter conditions; often highlighting just how difficult it can be to follow the line of navigational cairns when there is snow.

This becomes especially important in April and into Spring when – similar to the Glens – people rarely understand just how inhospitable it can become on the summit. This can often catch inexperienced walkers out.

This year I have also taken the time over winter to look into some of the eroding peat hags in the far eastern end of the Ben Nevis estate. This was to assess the peat depth and erosion in the area, in order to work out a plan to repair and restore these amazing habitats.

Stopping and taking the time to look at the miniature world of Spaghnum Moss and an array of other water loving species in the peat bog is a nice reminder to slow down and really take in the diverse environment I am fortunate enough to work in. Until the water seeps through your boots and you start to sink.

Protecting Our Mountains

The peatlands that cover large swathes of Scotland are in fact huge carbon stores. The eroding peat hags release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change, which in turn may have an immense effect on the delicate artic alpine conditions and habitats on the summit.

This mountain has a way of reminding me of the interconnectedness of everything, and any restoration work ourselves at John Muir Trust and others do will help protect our mountain areas for future generations.

A Rare Sight

Ben Nevis nurtures an array of extremely rare plant species especially adapted to late snow lie, short growing seasons and exposure.

I have been especially lucky to be part of a 3-year project exploring some of the less well known gullies and grassy ledges on the north face of Ben Nevis to find out if these populations were surviving or in decline.

John Muir Trust

Usually on the north face, your focus is on staying on route, following a line. It was really fun to throw that concept out the window and decide to take a detour off a route and abseil down to explore a grassy ledge or take an obscure traverse from halfway up Carn Dearg Buttress towards the Castle, following a green jewel-like thread to see where it led and what it held!

When Spring finally does arrive, I spend quite a lot of time on the mid-level mountain slopes looking at grazing levels on the upland heath and in and around the woodland. Trying to avoid particularly wet or midge-ridden days, not usually managing!

The woodland remnants in Steall Gorge appear on the oldest maps of the area and ancient continuous woodlands like this hold great treasures in the form of hidden communities of fungi, invertebrates, dormant seeds, rare lichens and microbial assemblages.

I would love to see this fragment of biodiversity expand and flourish. In order to achieve this goal, the results from our monitoring efforts help steer how many deer our stalkers can cull, and where they can focus their efforts for maximum impact on the woodland habitats.

All in a day’s work in order to conserve and protect the UK’s wildest places for future generations.

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Learn More About The John Muir Trust

Mountain Equipment support the John Muir Trust in its mission to protect the mountains and valleys we value so highly. Learn more about the John Muir Trust, here.

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