In your flight to the crags this spring, don’t forget about the birds. For many climbers, spring is the light at the end of the long winter tunnel. But in your rush for the crag, don’t forget that there could be nesting birds on some climbs.
You've spent the last few months training at the wall and you're stronger than ever, with an awesome tick list to get started on. Although you’re itching to climb, the birds may need a little longer to raise their young. Consequently, some crags will have climbing restrictions on certain areas or climbs. Breaking these restrictions could ruin the birds’ breeding, jeopardise future climbing at the site and lead to bad climbing karma. Here’s what you need to know.
What are climbing restrictions?
On behalf of climbers, the BMC negotiates restrictions for rare cliff-nesting birds across England and Wales. These negotiations take place with landowners and conservation bodies and, where necessary, might result in a climbing restriction, covering all or part of a crag. The restrictions are always based on evidence of birds nesting and the least restrictive option is always used – only as extensive as needed to give the birds the space they need.
Which birds are protected?
All wild-nesting birds have a level of protection under the law, but there is special protection for particularly rare species – known as "Schedule 1" species. The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 makes the destruction of nests or eggs of any wild-nesting bird an offence, and, additionally, Schedule 1 rare species cannot be disturbed at the nest. Each year, the BMC agrees climbing restrictions for Schedule 1 species or certain locally-rare other species. The most common are: peregrines, ravens, ring ouzels, choughs and auk species – such as razorbills and guillemots.
How do climbing restrictions vary?
Nesting dates vary across the country according to the species of bird and the location of the nests. Southern England sea cliffs are likely to be warmer earlier than the crags of Northumberland and this may influence nesting behaviour. Each pair of birds will also react differently to climbers depending on the tolerance of the bird, the location of the nest (whether it’s sheltered or exposed) and the level of climbing taking place when the birds picked the nest site. This last point is really crucial. If there is a high level of climbing on a crag early in the year due to mild weather, birds that still choose to nest there will do so despite climber activity, and be tolerant of climbers much closer to their nest. On the other hand, birds that nested on a crag when it was deserted during a wet period are more likely to be disturbed more easily when climbers begin to use the crag.
How do I find out about restrictions?
For the most accurate information across England Wales, check the BMC Regional Access Database (RAD) or download our RAD app for smartphones. Guidebooks publish details of nesting restrictions but don’t rely on them – the information could be out of date. Checking RAD before heading out might save you a wasted journey or even open up more options.
Are restrictions ever lifted early?
We are in regular contact with national park rangers throughout the Lakes, Yorkshire Dales and Peak. These rangers, with help from volunteers, monitor some of the more easily accessible nest sites and if the young fledge early will inform the BMC and the climbing restriction will be lifted.
Do all nesting birds have restrictions?
The BMC only agrees restrictions for rare species so there may be other nesting birds on crags with no restrictions. Conversely, there will be undoubtedly rare species nesting on some crags in remote locations that we don’t currently know about and so don’t have restrictions in place. If you witness a bird alarm-calling (squawking with erratic and visibly agitated flying around you) when approaching a crag or on a route, back off as soon as is safely possible and report it to the BMC.
Why should I stick to the agreed restrictions?
Climbers have a good record of following the agreed restrictions. As a result, conservation bodies and landowners generally look on climbers as responsible countryside users and are happy to negotiate with the BMC. However, if we don’t continue to observe negotiated restrictions and that view changes then more draconian restrictions are likely. So it’s in everyone’s interest to give these fantastic birds the space they need to raise their young for a couple of months each year.
Rob Dyer is the BMC Access and Conservation Officer for England. There’s nothing he doesn’t know about birds. email@example.com
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Expert Q & A
This issue’s expert is Simon Webb. Simon works for Natural England as the Conservation Advisor for the Lake District. He’s been climbing in summer and winter for 25 years.
Q. Why are peregrines so rare?
A. Because of humans: many were shot in WW2 as they could kill carrier pigeons, then in the 1950s and 1960s pesticide residues (such as DDT) concentrated in the food chain and prevented successful breeding. DDT was banned and they are only just returning to pre-war numbers. But persecution, coupled with egg and chick collection, still impacts on populations.
Q. Why do peregrines need crags?
A. Peregrines are part of the cliff environment. They need cliffs to protect their eggs and chicks from natural predators such as foxes. They also like a high vantage point somewhere close to their nest.
Q. Will the peregrine population continue to expand?
A. The number of peregrines will be limited, ultimately, by the availability of their food. Peregrines will defend a territory (the size of which depends on the density of their prey: mostly pigeons, ducks, seabirds and wading birds). These territories, some of which have records of occupation for decades, means that they are unlikely to nest close together, and nests will always be at least a few miles apart.
Q. What should I do if I find a bird nesting on an unrestricted crag?
A. If you come across a nesting peregrine on an unrestricted crag she (or he) will make an alarm call: a high pitched, scolding and repeated shriek. At this point you should move out of their line of sight and see whether they settle down. It may be possible to climb on another part of the crag if you’re out of sight from the birds; some birds can be very tolerant. But if the birds continue to be agitated, then find another location to climb and let the BMC know.
Q. What should I do if I see others climbing on a restricted crag?
A. If people are climbing on a restricted crag and disturbing peregrines, then you should go and speak to them. Explain that they could be causing eggs to fail or cold and hungry chicks to die. Climbers have a great reputation of climbing in harmony with birds, so gently ask others to find another route and come back when the birds have finished breeding.
Q. What’s the worst that could happen to me if I ignored the restrictions?
A. These birds are protected by strong legislation and disturbing peregrines can carry a hefty fine. The police are also likely to remove your climbing gear and hold it as evidence until any case comes to court. On a wider level, there is a good relationship between climbers, the BMC and conservation organisations, so the worst thing that could happen is that this relationship breaks down and we move to more confrontational general climbing bans.
The definitive source for all crag access information and nesting restrictions: www.thebmc.co.uk/rad
The RAD app is available for Android and iOS devices:
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