A charity has warned that footpaths on some of Scotland’s mountains are at risk of irreparable damage after a surge in visitor numbers.
The National Trust for Scotland (NTS), which has 270 miles of paths, said decades of work combatting weather erosion have been reversed as paths have widened, new routes trodden and delicate vegetation destroyed.
Visitor numbers have doubled on some of the most popular routes since lockdown restrictions were eased and rapid erosion is at risk of causing major damage.
There are particular problems at Ben Lomond and Ben Lawers, both owned and looked after by NTS.
Ben Lomond usually sustains 45,000 to 60,000 walkers over the course of a whole year but by mid-October was already registering 70,000 visitors.
At Ben Lawers, since lockdown eased, the recording devices on the mountain are showing that monthly figures are more than double those seen in 2019.
About 30,000 people use the routes on Ben Lawers each year and 2020 is expected to record a total figure of double that number.
NTS has urged visitors to take care and help prevent further damage by staying on the paths as much as they can.
Helen Cole, NTS property manager at Ben Lawers National Nature Reserve, said: “It’s wonderful seeing so many walkers and runners enjoying the hills, especially people who haven’t experienced this incredible place before.
“Ben Lawers is quite easy to get to from most parts of Scotland and when you’re at the car park, you’re already a third of the way to the top so we’re very popular.
“It’s heartbreaking, though, seeing accidental damage being done.”
She added: “People don’t know they’re doing it but something as simple as walking off the path can be quite a big problem if it’s done in the numbers that we’ve had recently.
“Social distancing has got a major part to play, too, as people try to avoid getting too close to others.
“I’ve been working on footpaths at Ben Lawers for 30 years and I’ve never seen the damage quite as rapid as this.
“We’ve got some of the rarest mountain plants in Britain here and we’ve spent decades and hundreds of thousands of pounds balancing our conservation work with public access but what’s happened in the last few months has put our work back by years.”
She said the trust’s footpath team has been working exceptionally hard to keep up but is already behind because of lockdown and furlough.
NTS urged visitors to stay on the paths as much as they can and avoid making their own routes, while groups should try to walk in single file along the paths – especially on narrow sections.
The trust said metal-tipped walking poles can damage the ground while ones with rubber ends cause less harm.
Walkers are also urged to take their litter home as even biodegradable items such as banana skins and orange peel can cause damage to the delicate ecosystems.