With lockdown encouraging more people to notice the nature on their doorstep, conservation charity National Trust is asking walkers to stick to paths to prevent erosion and damage to wildlife.

Figures revealed the Trust welcomed over 210,000 visitors to Divis and the Black Mountain in 2020, an increase of nearly 20% from the previous year, and it’s expected this number will only rise as people continue to enjoy the benefits of spending time in nature.

Craig Somerville, lead ranger at the Trust explains the challenges this surge in popularity has brought: “We fully appreciate the benefits that spending time in nature can bring, so it’s wonderful to see so many people enjoying the outdoors this year. It’s also fantastic to see people putting safety first as they step aside to allow a safe, social distance for fellow walkers. What people might not realise however, is that stepping off, and then continuing to walk off the path, is starting to erode the landscape at a rapid rate.

“One of the most popular walking routes on Divis and the Black Mountain is the Summit Trail,” Craig continues. “Over recent years this upland path has seen a huge increase in footfall resulting in damage to the path surface, and path ‘creep’ causing erosion to the grass verge as people step off the path.”

Excessive erosion to popular walking routes doesn’t just leave a visual impact on the landscape it also affects wildlife as Craig explains: “Once vegetation is lost through erosion, soil and stone can quickly wash off the mountain. This general loss of habitat and degradation can affect heathland flora species such as heathers, mosses and flowering plants like potentilla and bog asphodel.  It can also affect other rare mountain plants already at risk and living at the very edge of their range.”

Divis and the Black Mountain is a patchwork of upland heath containing blanket bog, wet heath, rush pasture and acid grassland, Blanket bog in particular is a key habitat for sphagnum moss, an amazing plant that can hold up to 20 times its own weight in water. This tiny plant creates peatlands by locking away huge amounts of carbon and plays a vital role in preventing further climate change.

“We know that this delicate natural balance is being disrupted as more visitors explore the mountain, so we need to do all we can to protect the landscape,” adds Craig. One way of doing this is by improving the trail network so people can enjoy the walks, without damaging the very nature they have come to enjoy.”

In January 2021 the Trust was successful in securing £59,000 of funding from the DAERA Environment Fund to carry out conservation and access improvements to the Summit Trail.

Environment Minister Edwin Poots MLA said: “I am aware that our natural green spaces are being visited more than ever. This is great to see as people get more connected to nature and gain health and well-being benefits. This does however put pressure on visitor infrastructure and our natural heritage. Maintenance of such services is essential, and I am happy that my Department was able to support the vital work that the National Trust is undertaking at Divis and the Black Mountain. We all have our part to play in using the countryside responsibility and as we come into the summer months, I encourage people to be outdoor smart, to leave no trace and to love the place.”

Works got underway in February this year to upgrade a 680m section of the Summit path including naturalisation of the path to mirror the surrounding landscape, improving the surface of the path, improved drainage and habitat restoration of the adjacent path area.

The path improvements were carried out mainly by hand, with contractors working in all weather conditions to ensure the project was completed in time for an anticipated increase in visitor numbers over the Easter period.

Craig continues: “It’s fantastic to have received DAERA funding for this vital path repair project. Several species found here in the mountains are identified as Northern Ireland Priority Species and by sticking to the paths, walkers help protect the habitat that they call home. Stonechats, skylark, snipe, meadow pipit and other upland breeding birds thrive on the mountain, while peregrine falcons and kestrels feed in the area. You may also encounter a hiding Irish hare.

“At this time of year there are lots of ground nesting birds and we also have cattle grazing on the mountain, so if you’re walking with a dog, please keep them on a lead. We’re also asking visitors to be respectful of the countryside and take their litter home with them.

“We recognise that people are getting fed up with having so many rules to follow, but if we can all play our part by looking after our paths, then we can ensure more people can enjoy them all the year round – and that they can remain open and accessible.”

For more information visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/divis or to donate to the National Trust’s latest Give Back to Nature appeal which includes conservation work like pathway maintenance, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk.