With the increasing popularity of sport climbing in the White Peak, climbers are frequently coming into contact with Peregrines, a situation that can be very bad for the birds. How can climbers avoid disturbing this protected species, particularly during the nesting season, and what can we do to help these birds thrive? Naturalist Kim Leyland explains.
There have been close encounters between climbers and Peregrines for as long as people have been scaling the crags. Pioneering Lake District climber and author George D. Abraham wrote in his 1919 book On Alpine Heights and British Crags "…many a cragsman whose eyes are not obsessed by the search for hand and foothold has memories of some wonderful exhibitions by these aerial hunters". Though his following advice that "Cragsmen who arrive in the vicinity of the falcon's eyrie would find it well worth a little trouble and delay to obtain a glimpse of its interior…" is, sadly, best ignored a century on.
Peregrines are legally protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), which confers protection, not only on the birds, their nests and eggs, but also against "intentional or reckless disturbance" at or near the nest. This means it may be an offence to be in the vicinity of a Peregrine nest site if you are causing disturbance to either the adults or young.
Since the 1980s the BMC have negotiated access restrictions with various landowners and conservation organisations, in order to alert climbers to the presence of nesting Peregrines (and other potentially vulnerable species of course) and help them to avoid disturbing the birds.
Historically, regular restrictions for Peregrines are perhaps more familiar to climbers in the Lakes or Snowdonia – and, even then, more often to those venturing away from the beaten track, to the more remote corners preferred by the birds themselves. In the 1980s, of around 50 recorded Peregrine sites in use by climbers across the UK, 40 were in the Lake District or Wales, with only two in the Peak District.
Peregrine numbers have increased across the country since then, part of a recovery extending back to the 1960s, when the population was at a nadir following war-time persecution to protect carrier pigeons, and later indirect poisoning from the use of organochlorine pesticides (e.g. DDT).
The most recent national Peregrine survey, in 2014, estimated the population at over 1700 UK breeding pairs, up 22% on the previous survey in 2002. Despite this, the Peregrine is still a rare breeding bird in Britain - by way of comparison there are estimated to be around 31,000 breeding pairs of Kestrel.
The breeding population increase has not, however, been evenly spread across the country. While lowland and urban Peregrine populations have generally increased (Greater London now holds more recorded pairs than Derbyshire!), in some upland areas populations remain low or are declining.
Good morning from a chilly and feathery Sheffield pic.twitter.com/mSvVBMIa3A— Sheffield Peregrines (@SheffPeregrines) November 23, 2020
In the Peak District these trends are reflected in the disparity between the White Peak and Dark Peak areas. A recent study showed that between 1995 and 2015 the Peregrine population in the Dark Peak decreased significantly, while there was a 20-fold increase in the White Peak. Peregrines were also found to be around three times more likely to successfully breed in the White Peak than the Dark Peak. The paper strongly indicates that persecution associated with driven grouse shooting is limiting the population in the Dark Peak.
Despite, or perhaps because of, these successes in the White Peak, Peregrines are also subject to other forms of deliberate persecution here, including the theft of both eggs and young birds.
There were a number of reports in the news last year of eggs being stolen, and also of birds being poisoned in the National Park. While these cases often go undetected, or remain unsolved crime statistics, late last year one person was charged with theft and is now due in court in July 2021. You may recognise some of the locations in these reports as popular, or less popular, climbing areas, though I am deliberately not mentioning many names in this article. Herein lies one of the principle difficulties with protecting Peregrine nests.
Like many bird of prey species, Peregrines are typically monitored closely by local raptor groups (I am a member of the South Peak Raptor Study Group), in addition to interested land owners, the RSPB and, occasionally, the Police. Breeding sites are often treated as closely guarded secrets, in order to protect the birds from unwanted attention, though in many cases it is apparent the persecutors have as much knowledge of the birds as the protectors.
This is a sad situation, and one I would like to see change, but obviously great care needs to be taken. I hope ultimately that climbers can be a positive part of this process.
Peregrines can certainly breed alongside climbers in the right circumstances (Malham is one of the most successful Peregrine sites in the Yorkshire Dales, for example) and this can lead to the assumption that climbing nearby is, in general, not a problem for them and that restrictions are often unnecessary.
This is not always the case, however, and judging the level of disturbance a particular pair will tolerate is not only an imprecise science, but almost impossible to do for any single instance, other than the most obvious of cases. An alarm calling bird is a clear sign. Reduced numbers of visits by parents to feed chicks over the course of a month, say, may be imperceptible, but still ultimately detrimental to the brood.
Disturbance, as well as being rather subjective to measure, is also difficult to generalise for. While it seems likely that a pair nesting in an urban setting may be more used to human presence than a pair at the top of a remote upland valley, the timing, frequency, regularity and position of human activity can give a large disparity in response.
A pair starting to breed in a largely empty quarry in March, perhaps frequented only by a few dog walkers on the ground (in my experience invariably regular in timing and route), may be alarmed by even a handful of climbing pairs in the same area come the first sunny weekend in April.
Timing can be a key factor. Like many species, Peregrines become less and less likely to wholly abandon a nesting attempt the more time and resources they have invested in it. Thus they are more likely to desert earlier in the breeding season, than later. Conversely, while incubating eggs early on, they may simply sit tight while people are nearby, with no apparent concern - but later, when there are chicks in the nest and they are away hunting, the same human presence may keep them from returning with food.
Duration also matters. An incubating bird forced off the nest for more than an hour just once, could cause the eggs to chill to the point of failure. While chicks can survive much longer without food, there can also be a cumulative effect. One climbing party keeping the pair from feeding the chicks for an hour may not have any significant effect. When the second, third, fourth… parties arrive, and the pair are affected for longer, or over multiple days, then the consequences can be significant – and potentially fatal.
In all these possible situations, what classes as "nearby", "longer", "early", etc. can vary between pairs, years and locations – as I say generalisation is difficult!
This is important to understand for anyone climbing on cliffs where Peregrines may potentially be breeding, but climbers who frequent the White Peak in particular. The twin trajectories of a recovering Peregrine population and an increasing desire for accessible low- to mid-grade sport climbing is now more frequently bringing climbers and Peregrines close together here.
Disused, and even still-used, quarries, as well as natural cliffs, provide ideal nesting sites for Peregrines. Unintended disturbance can occur in all three settings, and from a variety of sources, but climbing in the vicinity of a nest can cause possibly the most direct, and obvious, form.
In addition, crag access can be a grey area - and this especially applies to Peak limestone, where venues range from BMC owned-and-approved crags, through those where access has been negotiated, to those where it is tolerated or ignored, and even those where it is banned (and some where it is really, definitely, banned). It can be tricky to restrict access to a place where access is informal. And trickier when publicising this may endanger both the access, and the birds it is designed to protect. This is a frustrating situation as climbers, potentially a great asset in helping protect the Peregrines, may be left unaware of their presence and then regarded as a threat by those monitoring the birds.
There are a number of, predominantly natural, limestone crags with existing access agreements where climbers and Peregrines coexist generally happily, with annual restrictions on a select number of routes during the breeding season. Some of these have required determined negotiation by the BMC to be achieved, but by and large have produced successful Peregrine nests in recent years.
On the other hand, some former quarry sites, with informal access, which have perhaps until recently been the preserve of a few local developers but are becoming increasingly popular, have seen nest failures (though successes too). While some of these failures are likely to have been a result of deliberate persecution, others may have been due to the birds being disturbed at a crucial stage of the breeding cycle.
I would love to see climbers and Peregrines sharing crags, as far as this is possible, across the Peak District – it should be part of the joy of climbing in a National Park (and indeed anywhere). If we are to continue the success of those crags where access agreements have been negotiated, we also need to be aware of climbing where these can't or won't be negotiated through official channels.
This means, firstly, checking the BMC Reginal Access Database (RAD) as often as possible through the breeding season, even if visiting a regular local crag – in fact especially if this is the case, where familiarity may mean you are ordinarily less likely to check. Regardless of the situation on the ground, the RAD will always be updated with the latest information on restrictions.
Secondly, keep your eyes peeled for notices/signs. These may not always be present and may be less obvious than those we are used to for Ring Ouzels at Stanage say - they may be placed discreetly and where only climbers are likely to see them.
Thirdly, keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for Peregrines. As a general rule, if you hear them (a harsh "kaak! kaak! kaak!" call) you can probably assume you are disturbing them and should leave the area as quickly as possible (make a note of the date, time and location). If you see one, it can be hard to know whether you are seeing a bird flown off a nest, a bird going about its business undisturbed or perhaps a hunting bird from elsewhere. If you don't know of the current restrictions in the area, or haven't checked recently, it's best to err on the side of caution and climb elsewhere – though these days checking the RAD should usually be possible from the crag.
I am really interested in hearing about any Peregrine encounters you may have at the crag in the White Peak, and especially if you believe they are nesting where they may be disturbed. Notes of times and locations of Peregrine sightings will help build up a picture of their activity, and may provide valuable evidence of breeding success or failure.
The Police and RSPB Investigations team will be keen to hear of any reports of suspicious activity around known Peregrine sites. While the cynical may suspect that they would place climbing in that category, in reality climbers are probably best placed to tell the difference (if it's possible to do so on appearance) between a climber scoping out routes at a crag, and a would-be egg thief checking out an abseil approach. It's unlikely to be witnessed, but worth being aware of, especially if you're out until late in the evening.
Sometimes of course, the most important thing is to stay away from a crag entirely while a restriction is in place. It may still be possible to observe the birds in the area from a safe distance, on a road or public footpath, and I'd encourage people to do so, and would be happy to receive reports of sightings or activity.
I'd really like climbers to be involved in the monitoring and protection of Peregrines in the same way as occurs with Ring Ouzels. Over the last 20 years the ouzel story has evolved from one with rumours of Stanage being banned for climbing, to climbers being a key part of the protection of the birds – with as minimal an impact on climbing as possible (more on this in a later article). The issues of access, persecution and legal protection make this more difficult with Peregrines, but not impossible.
I hope this article raises some awareness of where Peregrines are at, in the White Peak at least, though unfortunately it has to be light on where they actually are. I hope that in the future it will be possible to write another article with a list of places where they can be enjoyed by all, climbers, walkers and visitors alike, because they have enough people looking out for their protection. I'll finish with another quote from George Abraham "To all who love the heights the presence of our mountain birds is an added charm. There is a strange inner appeal in the echoing croak of the raven in the crags or the flash of the falcon across the dizzy cliff, the while one revels in the thrill of close contact with the great grey rocks".