For the walkers anxious to escape the pandemic, Ben Lomond’s slopes offered space and unspoiled scenery.

In their trainers and comfy shoes, they headed uphill in their masses, avoiding the rock-hard stone path as they went in favour of the spongier comfort of its mossy edges.

Now it appears the ‘softies’ who opted for soft-soled shoes and trainers over tough hiking boots have added to erosion around sections of the mountain path, harming the slope’s fragile plant life that will take decades to revive.

Damage on one particularly steep upper stretch of the mountain path is said to have worsened during the height of the pandemic when walkers took to the hills to find respite from tough lockdown restrictions.

It’s also emerged that a huge wildfire on Ben Lomond earlier this year, thought to have been caused by a careless walker, destroyed a fledgling project to ‘rewild’ a large area of the west side of the mountain and allow native trees and shrubs to take hold.

Two years’ worth of growth was wiped out in the blaze, believed to have been caused by a hiker’s discarded cigarette.

The issues have highlighted the delicate balance between managing the fragile landscape with rising numbers of visitors anxious to enjoy its wild beauty – and the endless task of trying to repair and restore it.

The impact of at least 50,000 pairs of feet a year climbing the mountain in the wake of the pandemic is now being repaired, in a labour-intensive, back-backing job that has seen the three-man team of rangers joined by a ‘hard core’ group of volunteers on a damaged stretch of path just short of the summit.

It is all the more physically demanding because each replacement stone has to be searched for and retrieved from the nearby area, then carried by hand to the path where it is slotted into place.

No mechanical carrying equipment can be used for fear of harming the fragile plant life that clings to the uppermost slopes of 3,196ft mountain.

“We get a lot of folk saying they don’t like walking on the stone and that it hurts their feet,” explains Ben Lomond’s head ranger, Alasdair Eckersall.

“When people are in thinner sole trainers, there’s a tendency not to like the uncomfortable rocky surface and look for something softer to walk on.

“One or two people might not cause a problem, but several hundred all trampling on the same bit of ground does.

“Up at these higher altitudes, it’s fragile vegetation, a lot of moss and lichens, and less robust grass and heather.

“Once you lose the vegetation, you start to lose the topsoil. And once you lose that, it can take decades to get the vegetation cover back again.”

He adds: “Proper hillwalking gear is expensive, and no one wants to say you should not be coming up the hills unless you have all this stuff that costs hundreds of pounds.

“People should be going up the hill and enjoying it. But we want people to remember they are just one of many coming to visit.”

In recent weeks, NTS rangers and around half a dozen volunteers have made regular one-hour long treks to the worst affected stretch of path to carry out repairs.

It is a particularly demanding challenge: “Once we’re there, we have to find the stone we need,” adds Alasdair.

“We are in an ecologically sensitive environment, so anything we do - including the stone gathering – has to be done as sensitively as we can.

“It’s not just ripping up lichen-encrusted stones, we are careful about what we are doing and where it’s from.

“It’s then a hard job carrying that to the path because we are working on steep slopes.

“Although we have a little petrol driven track carrier, we can’t use it at that site, so we carry everything. It’s all human endeavour.”

The trudge is part of a never-ending labour of love for the three-man team who maintain and repair damage on the slope as well as carrying out a range of other conservation and environmental tasks.

Similar work is also carried out at other sites across Scotland cared for by NTS: there are more than 400 miles of path spanning areas of Glen Coe, Kintail, West Affric, Mar Lodge Estate, Grey Mare’s Tail, Torridon, Goatfell, Ben Lawers and Ben Lomond.

At each site, path repairs involve using simple tools – spades, mallets, thick rubber gloves to protect hands and a lot of brute force to dislodge rocks from their resting place while carefully manipulating the grass and moss around to ensure no lasting damage is done.

Some rocks used for repairs can weigh up to 250kg, requiring several strong arms to prise them from the ground and transport it to the path.

“The path was brought back from a poor state in the 1980s and 1990s, to the well-contained and well-managed condition that it is generally in now,” says Alasdair, who is marking 30 years based at the mountain, much of it spent ensuring its well-trodden path remains in good condition.

“This section had started to deteriorate before the pandemic. But there was big rush when people couldn’t travel overseas and walker numbers were ramped up for a while.

“There are still about 50,000 people a year going up and down the hill - it’s a busy place.”

The repairs, he adds, have an important role to play in protecting the landscape: “it’s not about making it easier to get up and down the hill. It’s about the long-term impact on the hill.

“If we don’t do the work, it will just get worse.”

The popularity of Scotland’s best-loved mountains in recent years has led to mounting concerns over the human toll taken on their paths, surrounding vegetation and over the amount of litter left in their wake.

Last summer, NTS launched a “Love this place, leave no trace” campaign which aimed to remind visitors to minimise their impact on the properties and wild locations it cares for, including Glencoe, Ben Lomond and Mar Lodge Estate.

It followed a rise in anti-social behaviour which had impacted on long-term conservation projects, including fences and trees uprooted and used for firewood.

Litter, animal and human waste has also been an issue, while there were concerns over livestock and wildlife attacks by dogs.

While earlier this month at Ben Nevis, a new registration system was launched for charity events in an effort to avoid overcrowding on the mountain, its access roads and car parks.

However, the human toll on the landscape can sometimes be even more devastating than damage to paths.

Last March fire ripped across a swathe of Ben Lomond which had been painstakingly cordoned off to allow natural species of birch, rowan and willow to regenerate.

A 1km wide stretch burned for two days, ruining two years of precious growth.

“It was very upsetting,” Alasdair adds. “We don’t know what started it, but we’ve come to the natural assumption about someone having a fag and chucking it away.

“It’s a steep slope, not a place where someone might set up a barbecue or pitch a tent. Someone started it somehow.

“There are a lot of trees seeded in that area of ground which had been trying to grow for a long time but were getting grazed back,” he adds.

“The hill fires have been a setback – the progress of two years of growth was lost.”

Work on the paths, meanwhile, continues.

“It’s a bit like painting the Forth Bridge,” adds Alasdair, “it never ends.”