It’s almost spring and seasonal nesting restrictions are beginning to come into place at crags all over the country. We talk to BMC Access Officer Rob Dyer to find out how that could affect your climbing.
What are nesting restrictions when they’re at home, how do they help conserve protected bird species and what could happen to you if you flaunt them? We asked BMC Access Officer Rob Dyer to give us the lowdown on crag closures during the nesting season.
CHECK: For climbing restrictions on the BMC Regional Access Database (RAD)
Going back to the basics here, what exactly are nesting restrictions?
Well, a better term might be ‘climbing restrictions’: we’re not trying to restrict where birds decide to nest! These are voluntary restrictions, negotiated by the access team at the BMC with conservation bodies and land managers, in order to prevent the disturbance of certain rare and protected crag-nesting bird species. They follow an evidence-based approach - we won’t agree to a restriction unless there is evidence of birds nesting on a crag used by climbers.
Restrictions always follow the least restrictive option. This basically means that we will agree to restrict the minimum amount of crag required in order to prevent disturbance of the birds whilst nesting, whilst also maximising the area of the crag that can remain open.
What time of year do restrictions tend to come into place?
The type of birds we agree restrictions for in England and Wales begin nesting from the end of the winter into spring. The earliest restrictions tend to be for raven, which begin nesting around mid-February in some areas.
And how long do they generally run for?
It depends on the species the restriction is for, but the majority of restrictions we agree run from the beginning of March to the end of June.
Is it mainly sea cliffs that are affected?
Sea cliffs are certainly one type of crag traditionally associated with nesting restrictions, but birds also nest on inland crags so you can expect to see anything from a mountain cliff in the Lakes to a moorland crag in the Yorkshire Dales or a sea cliff in Pembrokeshire on the Regional Access Database (RAD) with a temporary restriction. These birds can be incredibly adaptive and found in a variety of environments, so it’s possible to find nesting birds on all sorts of crags across England and Wales.
Are restrictions set in stone, or do they change as nesting sites move?
No, not at all. As I mentioned already, one of the most important aspects of the restrictions the BMC agrees is that they are evidence based. Birds frequently change their nest sites between different positions on a crag, or even between different crags. We do our best to keep on top of this, with rangers, wardens and our own volunteers on the ground helping to confirm where nests are located each year and if the pair of birds have been successful in laying eggs, hatching and fledging young. If the nest location changes, or the birds are unsuccessful in fledging young (due to perhaps cold weather or lack of availability of food) and abandon the nest, we update the RAD as soon as we know about it.
Who decides which crags are restricted?
The agreement of any restriction is part of a negotiation process between the BMC and the relevant conservation body or landowner responsible for the crag. We only agree restrictions for rare or protected species, or species that pose a threat to climbers (tawny owls for example are known to viciously defend their nests and have torn out bird ringer’s eyes before) as it would be impossible to have restrictions for every common bird that nests on the crags of England and Wales.
From a conservation perspective, why are the restrictions so important?
The species of bird the BMC agrees restrictions for are all rare and many are listed in the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 as being particularly sensitive. These birds nest on crags as part of a defence mechanism to make it harder for other animals to steal their eggs and young and. As climbers, we are mimicking the behaviour of other animals that might want to predate on eggs or young, which leads to disturbance of the birds.
Several of these species are suffering population decline either locally within the areas where restrictions are agreed or nationally, and this is often due to reduced availability of appropriate habitat and food. For example, changes to farming practice in recent years have meant that still born lambs and afterbirth must be removed from fields and fells and this has removed a significant food source for species such as raven and put pressure on their population numbers. This is just one example of the pressures put on these species and we’re talking about rare birds needing a very specific (cliff) environment and a lack of disturbance to breed successfully.
Is it actually illegal to climb on a crag that has nesting birds on it?
Climbing itself isn’t illegal, but if it causes damage (or in the case of Schedule 1 species disturbance), it is those actions that are illegal. All wild birds, their nests and eggs are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Countryside Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000. What this means is that for a wild bird with no further protection, the nest itself, eggs or young and the birds themselves are protected by law – so any damage to these is an offence. Schedule 1 species are particularly vulnerable, and the birds on this list have protection from any form of disturbance from their normal behaviour whilst nesting. If it were proven by Natural England or Natural Resources Wales that a climber had disturbed a Schedule 1 species they could face a fine of up to £20,000 and six months in prison.
What are the consequences of ignoring the restrictions?
Climbers have an excellent reputation amongst conservation bodies, with our voluntary restrictions system upheld as a great example of how recreation and conservation can work together without the need for heavy-handed statutory restrictions. As things are, we have the opportunity to negotiate and ensure that restrictions are fair. Were climbers to ignore the voluntary restrictions, we would come under pressure to convince the climbing community to follow them - and if the situation didn’t improve, we could be faced with much more draconian measures. It’s definitely in our own best interests, as well as those of some pretty special birds, to check RAD, understand restrictions and follow them. The climbing community are doing really well with this, so it’s a long way from being all doom and gloom!
What should you do if you see somebody else climbing on an affected crag?
It’s up to us to regulate ourselves if we want to avoid outside organisations implementing harsher restrictions, so if you do see someone climbing on part of a crag covered by a nesting restriction, politely have a chat with them and let them know. It might be that they weren’t aware of the restriction in the first place and most climbers will be happy to be informed and move out of the restricted area as soon as they safely can.
Which bird species are most commonly protected by the restrictions?
The most common species we agree restrictions for are peregrines, ravens, choughs and auk species such as puffins, razorbills and guillemots. They aren’t limited to these species though.
If you discover birds nesting on an unrestricted crag, what action should you take?
The best thing to do is give the BMC a call or drop us an email to let us know – we can then check it out and establish if a restriction is needed.
WATCH: What can go wrong in Birds, The Movie, on BMC TV:
WATCH: What is RAD? on BMC TV
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