Chapel Head: Peregrines and Passions…

Posted by James Bumby on 19/03/2019
A juvenile peregrine chick at Stonestar Crag in 2018. Photo: Ian Bradley (KMC)
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Chapel Head Scar is an imposing limestone crag above the Witherslack valley in South Cumbria. It’s loved by many outdoor enthusiasts. Whitbarrow Scar above provides great walking when the higher fells are clagged in. The cliff is undoubtedly Cumbria’s premiere hard sport climbing crag. It is unique and many of its routes are of good quality, hence it’s enduring popularity but it also provides an important refuge for peregrine falcons which nest on the crag during the spring. James Bumby, BMC Volunteer Access Co-ordinator for the Lakes gives some background to why restrictions are needed to protect cliff nesting birds in the Lakes and for this crag in particular...

My phone and emails normally start to come alive with the arrival of spring. This is no natural and technological connection, but merely the fact that Chapel Head has a seasonal climbing restriction placed upon it due to nesting peregrine falcons. Understandably people wish to climb there: many communications are passionate in nature, and most are polite!

Peregrines are often cited as been one of the world’s fastest creatures. They hunt medium sized birds, predominantly pigeons, and when diving in their stoop can reach speeds of over two hundred miles an hour. They have evolved into an ultimate hunting machine: they will literally “punch” prey out of the sky with balled talons. Their eyes have a protective lens, which is just as well at that impact speed. Their distinctive shriek call belongs to our fells and coastline. Where passion is concerned, peregrines pair for life.

I remember once seeing a male falcon pass food to a female.  The food was dropped into space and the female stooped from above to pluck the meal from thin air. Females regularly fly upside down to complete this transfer and get back to their brood.

Back in the 60’s and 70’s peregrine numbers suffered with the increased use of pesticides especially DDT. Better awareness and restrictions have seen their numbers increase throughout the UK. Despite this Cumbrian peregrine numbers appear to be in decline, with the northern part of the Lake District faring better than the south.

As walkers and climbers, we are often out and about in their habitats and best placed to report sightings and nests. Crags that are regular nesting sites are well known. It is harder to gain information from crags that are not frequented or simply too scrappy to climb on.

Currently information is gathered by a small group of enthusiasts, BMC officers and volunteers, staff from the Lake District National Park, Fell & Rock Climbing Club and Natural England. We meet in the late autumn to consider the restrictions for the year ahead. What will really help this group is information to help inform our decisions. With more accurate details we can be more supportive with limiting the restrictions and enabling more climbing time. The challenge for many is recognising the species. I was out last summer looking for peregrines that were reported: they turned out to be Kestrels. Even for experts locating nest sites and confirming successful broods can be near impossible. This has to be done from a distance as peregrines  are afforded strong legal protection against disturbance whilst nesting. The birds also leave nest sites for many hours at a time to hunt.

We have collectively spent many hours at Chapel Head watching to help inform the restrictions. As well as the bird life this whole area is also a wildlife reserve and SSSI due to its rare flora, particularly along the cliff top. The sport routes really help this as top access is limited. As such we have a greater responsibility as guests to climb here. Fortunately, we do a great job in respecting this situation. The sympathetic replacement of bolts by many  volunteers has helped to limit top access whilst improving the climber’s experience and is just one example of what we do as a community to preserve delicate access.

Last spring a Kendal Mountaineering Club meet arrived at Stonestar Crag in the Duddon. Due to the late spring and the beast from the east the falcons had fledged late. The club discovered two fledglings at the base of the crag. The meet was relocated and the BMC informed. Top marks to KMC!

People can help by reporting sightings of peregrines or their nest sites - the RSPB Bird Identifier is free to use and a great resource for helping to identify birds if you are in any doubt about what you have seen. The best way to report sightings is to email the BMC's Access & Conservation Officer giving as much information as possible, ideally including:

  • Crag name
  • Location of the nest (either referencing route names or sending a marked up crag photo)
  • Date of observation
  • A description of the bird(s) seen
  • Description of their behavior/calls etc

Once we have accurate information, we update the Regional Access Database (RAD) and other websites such as the FRCC to as soon as possible.

The first climbing restrictions were placed in the 1970s to allow birds to nest undisturbed and undoubtedly the BMC’s work since then has contributed to the welfare of these amazing falcons. Any BMC agreed seasonal climbing restrictions follow the principle of taking the least restrictive option to keep as much climbing open as possible without causing disturbance. We are fortunate to visit their environment, let’s keep it that way.


Get all the info on crags with the RAD (Regional Access Database) app from the BMC! Available now for Android and iOS, it's free and comes with a host of new features like navigation and parking, weather and tidal updates, and of course information on restrictions or notes on access advice. Get it here now!

DOWNLOAD: The RAD app for Android

DOWNLOAD: The RAD app for iOS

RAD is community led and your comments help keep it up to date so don’t be afraid to add any relevant information after a crag visit which might be useful for other visitors – anything from conditions on the crag, favourite routes or reports of rockfall/other recent changes to the crag are all useful for other climbers visiting.

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