Walkers practising social distancing are accidentally damaging Scotland’s most popular Munros – as visitor numbers doubled during the coronavirus pandemic.
National Trust for Scotland said rapid erosion was now visible on Ben Lomond, near Loch Lomond and Ben Lawers, near Loch Tay, after a surge in walkers.
Fragile verges are being accidentally damaged by walkers who are stepping off the side of paths to let others pass in a bid to stick to social-distancing rules.
Conservation experts said work in the areas, home to some of the rarest mountain plants in Britain, is being put back by years.
The most acute damage has been done at Ben Lomond, which usually sees 45,000 to 60,000 walkers a year – but by mid-October 70,000 visitors had already been registered.
At peak times, post-lockdown numbers on Ben Lomond are showing to be twice those of 2019, according to NTS bosses.
Around 30,000 people visit Ben Lawers every year, but monthly figures recorded after spring lockdown lifted were more than double those seen in 2019.
Helen Cole, NTS property manager at Ben Lawers National Nature Reserve, said the damage was the most rapid she had seen in 30 years.
She 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.
“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 and 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.
“Visitors can help at Ben Lawers, and all around the path network, by staying on the paths as much as they can.”
The conservation charity said groups should try and walk single file along the paths especially on narrow sections.
NTS has recommended that metal-tipped walking poles can damage the ground and have recommended that those with rubber tips are used instead.