Clearing up after the Ben Nevis litter louts

By James Cook
BBC Scotland correspondent


The splendour of the highest mountain in the British Isles draws walkers from all over the world.

But all too often what goes up with them doesn't come down.

The problem is obvious just 20 minutes after leaving the visitor centre on the 1,344m (4,409ft) ascent.

Alison Austin, Nevis conservation officer with the John Muir Trust, stops beside a wooden bench and examines the ground below.

She points out: "Already there is loads of rubbish - Mars bar wrappers, tissues and some sweetie wrappers as well.

"It is really typical. We usually get loads of banana skins," she adds, pointing to a black, shrivelled example - dried-up and rotting.

"They break down quite quickly at this low level because it is quite warm. Near the top it will take a lot longer. It is a lot colder.

"They can be there for up to two years, just sitting around."

This weekend - as she does every three months - Ms Austin will lead a team of volunteers to clean up "the Ben".

"We go up maybe four times a year with work parties. Each person will take down a full bag from the summit - 10 bags in each of the work parties."

It all adds up to an enormous amount of rubbish.

"Doing it over and over again can be really demoralising," says Ms Austin.

The John Muir Trust, a conservation charity, owns the land on the mountain and would prefer to use its volunteers to improve paths and study wildlife.

But part of the problem is trying to educate walkers about what actually constitutes litter.

John Summers, chief executive of charity Keep Scotland Beautiful, says the answer is simple: anything that wasn't there in the first place.

He says many walkers are surprised to learn that this includes banana skins and apple cores.

"These are not natural things in this environment" argues Mr Summers.

"They may be natural where they are grown but they are not natural on Ben Nevis. Take it home with you. Compost it for instance."

And he is keen to remind the public that dropping litter in Scotland is illegal, punishable by a £50 fine.

The scale of the problem on Ben Nevis suggests the law is not working as a deterrent.

At one point conservationists estimated that there were more than 1,000 banana skins on the summit.

Chemical balance

And that's not the worst of it.

There is also human waste on the plateau, a fact that angers John Hutchison, chairman of the John Muir Trust.

"That is really pretty arrogant and selfish to behave in that manner," he says.

More controversial is the trust's approach to people scattering the ashes of their loved ones on the hillside.

"It is litter," insists Mr Hutchison, adding that while he can understand why people want to scatter ashes, it "affects the chemical balance of that part of the hill".

In the summer up to 20,000 people a month come to Fort William to scale the mountain.

The majority are responsible walkers who are disappointed by what they find.

Image caption,
Bags of rubbish are taken from the mountain by litter pickers

Peter Watson, 57, a pharmacist from Hobart, Australia, who is carrying a plastic bag which he has filled with other people's litter, said: "We saw a fair bit compared with what we'd see in Tasmania on our parks.

"People should be able to bring down what they carry up."

Two prison officers from Suffolk, who are making their way down, agree.

Rob Miller said: "We've noticed as we're going up tissues, bottles and things like that

"It's just a case of, if you take it up full, you should be bothered to bring it down empty."

His colleague Martyn Beckley agreed, adding: "It's been quite disappointing actually. It's just anti-social isn't it? It's a natural resource. It's an area of natural beauty and people should treat it as such."

Jane Bentley, a hospital executive director from Dorchester, Dorset, was also bringing down some rubbish she had found on the path.

Clean-up weekend

She said: "I think it is a bit disappointing.

"It's a really special place to be. It's the highest point in Britain and to come out and find that people haven't been respectful and taken it home, I think it is a shame."

But for some Ben Nevis is more about stunts than scenery.

And those people have left behind some very odd litter indeed.

Ms Austin said: "When I first started this job we found a piano under a cairn

"We also found a wheelchair on the summit not that long ago. Not sure what happened to the person."

As they set off for the latest clean-up this weekend, who knows what her team will find this time.

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