Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Cairns, a help or a hinderance?

Over recent years there's been a definite increase in cairns being vandalised. Much of this is presumably done with good intention, but based on inadequate knowledge.

We've often heard people suggest that "there are too many cairns" or "stones are better on the footpath than on a cairn". In some ways this is correct, but cairns still have a vital part to play on the fells. Cairns were originally built to help people find their way along a poorly defined path, and many have historical significance.

Large cairn on the right-hand-side of Stickle Ghyll

You can see a cairn in the photograph above that has become excessively large and no longer really serves it's intended purpose. The path is well defined and even when the cloud is down you'd struggle to get lost on a pitched path like this. The cairn has also reached a height where it is starting to fall back onto the path, which narrows the path and may make it difficult to walk on.

Having said that, there's very little surface stone around now so it's unlikely to get much bigger and cause much of a problem. It's also been around a long time, and it actually serves a purpose of keeping people on the path, which helps prevent erosion. So in this instance it'd be useful for those few stones on the path to be added to the top, but otherwise it can be left alone.

 Cairn at Rossett Ghyll, destroyed and thrown on the path

The photo above shows a cairn that has been knocked down for no apparent reason. We actually built this cairn as part of our footpath repair work to help guide people down the path. It's at a point where the path originally split, one route headed straight down the ghyll and the other followed the path we'd worked on. Before working on the path, the erosion in the ghyll was clearly visible from the valley below, but we've spent a lot of time revegetating it and it's now started to blend back in with it's surroundings. So by building the cairn, anyone who's a little unsure which way to go will hopefully follow the path, rather than causing more erosion in the ghyll.

 Rebuilding the cairn at the top of Rossett Ghyll

It seems strange that somebody would want to destroy this cairn, since it's not particularly visually intrusive and by looking at it you can tell there's been some effort made to build it and it's therefore likely to have a function. Also, why throw the stones onto the path, making it more difficult for people to walk on? This could possibly come from the idea that "stones are better on the footpath than on a cairn". The thought behind this statement comes from the fact of stones that are in the path are better left where they are, as they help it all bind together. Don't prise them out of the path to add them to a cairn.

Repairing the cairn at Stickle Ghyll

The above photograph shows another cairn needlessly scattered on to the path. This cairn was also built to help people find the path. In good weather it can be difficult to find this path, but in bad weather if you've never walked it before it's more or less impossible. This can, of course, have safety implications and there have been instances of cairns being removed, which has led walkers to become lost. This has led to Mountain Rescue Teams unnecessarily being called out.

We'd only ever really recommend removing a cairn if it is obviously very new, eg. two or three stones, and looks like it has been built by one person for no apparent reason. In this case it may be worth throwing the stones off the path to discourage others from adding to it. In this day-and-age unless it's for safety reasons, or to guide people onto a path, there's no real reason to be building new cairns, or indeed add to them.

So if you ever see a cairn and think you should add or remove stones from it, next time ask yourself a few questions.
  • Is the cairn performing a purpose? 
  • What would the surrounding terrain look like in bad weather, would the cairn then have a purpose?
  • Does the cairn really need any stones adding or removing from it?
  • What might the consequences be if I dismantled or built a cairn here?
  • Is the cairn old, and possibly have historical significance?
If you're ever in doubt it's probably safest to just leave it alone, as generally if left alone it won't cause too much of a problem. Problems only really arise if a cairn becomes so large that the path splits either side of it which may lead to a wide erosion scar. But in this instance it's not a one man job to fix, and if we perceive it as a problem we'll arrange a volunteer work party to properly dispose of all, or part, of the cairn.