Maintaining the Lake District’s beauty is becoming increasingly difficult for volunteers and rangers as TikTok and Instragram have led to a surge in Gen Z visitors.
Leo Walmsley, a footpath ranger in the Lake District National Park for 16 years, told i: “People used to discover places in the Lakes through word-of-mouth, but now social media is giving people inspiration.”
Mr Walmsley is a member of Fix the Fells, a team of skilled rangers who protect the Lake District landscape from erosion by repairing and maintaining upland paths.
The work of 21 employed rangers and 130 volunteers helps protect the landscape’s ecology and archaeological heritage.
But the work has become harder in recent months as social media, such as Instagram and TikTok, has led to younger generations discovering the wonders of the Lake District, contributing towards a rise in footfall.
“Certain spots have become very popular as people want to get Instagram photos,” Mr Walmsley said. “Visitor numbers went particularly crazy after Covid when people couldn’t travel abroad.”
i spent a day with Fix the Fells Central and Eastern ranger team above the picturesque village of Grasmere where the team are creating a path on the route to Stone Arthur, one of Alfred Wainwright’s famous walks.
While many living in the Lake District area know about the much needed efforts of Fix the Fell teams, few tourists who flock to the Lakes – particularly over the summer – are aware of the secret army working behind-the-scenes to preserve its natural beauty.
As an elderly gentleman painstakingly makes his way up a meandering path on one of the Lake District’s stunning fells, he utters heartfelt gratitude to the rangers working to repair and maintain the spectacular landscape.
“Thank you. If it wasn’t for you doing these paths, I wouldn’t be able to go up the fells,” he says.
Hearing his words, a smile creeps across the face of Ade Mills, assistant ranger working for Fix the Fells for 22 years. “Our work is conserving the natural beauty of the Lake District – we’re not here to make life easier for walkers and tourists. That’s a byproduct of what we do.
“But even though it’s not the main driving force, hearing positive comments like this is nice as we like seeing people enjoy the Lake District.”
The twin forces of 15.8 million people visiting the Lake District annually and extreme weather conditions battering the landscape are exacerbating path erosion and damage, explains Isabel Berry, partnership manager for Fix the Fells.
She tells i the wet weather can have disastrous consequences. “The ground is already churned up so when millions of visitors come to the Lake District, serious path erosion happens very quickly.
“Climate change is already making periods of extreme weather increasingly common so the need for Fix the Fells has never been greater.”
Ms Berry, who began her role in February and describes it as her “dream job”, says while they absolutely want people to keep coming to the Lake District, increased footfall means “everything takes more of a battering.”
“We want people to enjoy the Lake District, but a major part of the attraction is that things are so beautiful. Our job is conserving the environment and dealing with erosion.”
The Lake District is one of Britain’s best loved landscapes and a Unesco World Heritage site. But the magnificent upland environment is fragile. Erosion from people, severe weather and climate change is causing ugly scars and environmental damage.
Fix the Fells is a partnership programme between the National Trust, the Lake District National Park, Natural England, Friends of the Lake District and the Lake District Foundation. Their mission is to repair and maintain 344 upland paths covering 410 miles to keep the Lake District a special place for future generations.
“Our work is from a conservation point of view to protect the fellside,” explains Pete Entwistle, Fix the Fells area ranger, who has been doing the job for 28 years. “You can’t protect it unless you provide paths.”
Wiping his brow as he digs the ground above Grasmere in the sweltering heat, Mr Entwistle describes the process of creating a path from doing a survey to writing a job specification and working out amounts of rock needed.
Natural rocks are chosen to blend into the environment from surrounding fellsides, before being flown in by helicopter. “We fill bags with rocks we want from the other side of the valley and the helicopter flies them to where we want on the path.”
Chuckling as he recalls days gone by, he says: “We didn’t have helicopters to move the rocks, so they had to be collected and rolled across the fellside. You’d spend half your time rolling rocks and could only work on paths with rocks nearby.”
When stone pitching, you have to fight your natural instinct to make it look “manicured with straight lines”, says Mr Entwistle. “Nature doesn’t do straight lines. We’re trying to replicate nature by landscaping paths into the surroundings.
“We also snake paths up steep slopes to take the gradient out to make it easier to walk on. A good path is one people don’t even notice they’re walking along.”
Since Covid, the Lake District has become increasingly popular attracting many first-time visitors who have realised you don’t need to go abroad to have a wonderful holiday.
Social media attracts new generations to Lake District
In popular Lake District spots such as Scafell Pike, Old Man of Coniston, Cat Bells and Helvellyn, rangers and volunteers face a near constant battle to maintain 410 miles of pathways.
Work currently underway includes protective landscaping at Cat Bells, laying stepping stones and path drainage above Levers Water and reuniting the path at Scafell Pike after it split into multiple strands eroding the mountainside.
Without this maintenance and repair work, many of the Lake District’s most iconic fell pathways would be inaccessible to the majority of visitors.
“We’re finding that social media is having a huge impact on visitor trends,” says Isabel Berry, Fix the Fells partnership manager. “If a place makes it to TikTok, which many of our more famous spots have, we inevitably see a significant uplift in visitors.
“Many are young people and we’re delighted to be welcoming them – the outdoors is and always will be for everyone.
“But the impact of the increasing footfall in these ‘hotspots’ is undeniable and we need to be focusing more resources on protecting these special places.”
With the shift in visitor demographics, the teams began working on paths they would never have considered tackling 10 years ago. “We’re finding more erosion on smaller paths as they are becoming more attractive because people don’t need to climb as far for stunning views,” says Mr Entwistle.
“Places like Grasmere with a lot of half day routes have become very popular. We’re spending more time on paths with lower summits than high up in the fells.”
Without Fix the Fells, not only would ugly scars spoil the beauty of the Lakes, visitors would find themselves walking across loose stones and soil. “It would be like walking on marbles,” he says. “People would slip and consequently walk on the grass. But that would make the path wider and add to erosion.”
Many people mistakenly believe the paths the team are working on are more than 100-years-old, or that they are excavating ancient paths. They view this as a huge compliment. “If people think the path has been here forever, it means we’ve done our job in making it look natural,” says Jonathan Skinn, Fix the Fells upland ranger, who has been in the job for six years.
“We want people to come to the Lake District and appreciate the beauty, but we want to preserve it and protect it from damage.”
He adds: “I love my job – we all do. You feel a physical sense of satisfaction at seeing the finished product you have put a lot of effort into and seeing people using the paths and having an enjoyable experience.”
Funding needed for vital work to preserve Lake District
Without the work of Fix the Fells, erosion would develop rapidly into huge scars, resulting in loss of vegetation, soil, stone, habitats, species and landscape beauty, as well as adversely affecting rivers, lakes and leading to flood-risk in the valleys below.
Repairing erosion damage is an increasing and on-going task as visitor numbers and extreme weather events increase.
The work is not about improving paths, accessibility or safety, it is purely about repairing damage in a sustainable way.
It can cost up to £400 to repair a metre of path in some of the most damaged and inaccessible areas and it costs £500,000 a year to maintain the existing Fix the Fells network.
Fix the Fells has been operating since 2001 and all funding has to be raised from grants and donations.
The team behind Fix the Fells is appealing for donations to enable the repair of hundreds of paths across the Lake District’s most popular destinations.
Donations to Fix the Fells can be made by visiting: fixthefells.co.uk/donate or by texting FELLS to 70525, which will donate £5 to the appeal.