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Avoiding disturbance of birds

For many species of bird, the crag is their home. Climbers generally coexist without detriment to the birds’ breeding success, and it is egg collectors, unscrupulous gamekeepers, chick thieves, over-zealous birdwatchers and photographers who cause the greatest harm.

However, without care, climbers may inadvertently contravene parts of the law, particularly regarding rarer birds such as peregrine falcons and eagles, which benefit from special protection. As users of the countryside we should always strive to help protect it, and the wildlife in it, by acting responsibly and by helping to prevent wildlife crime.

The timescales for bird nesting are usually within the period of early February to end of July.

  • For most birds the most sensitive period is when they have just laid eggs (generally from late February to early May).  If repeatedly or continually kept off the nest then the eggs will cool and perish. The risk of cooling is affected by ambient temperature, crag aspect, time of day, but even in the best conditions protracted absence from the nest can be fatal.

  • Another important period is when the young are newly hatched (rough guide, April or May). It is unlikely that parents will desert them after being briefly disturbed, but the chicks do not have protective feathers yet and are prone to rapid cooling.  

  • Once chicks are a little older, then disturbance becomes less damaging.

Ground-nesting birds of all species will cope instinctively with the passage of walkers in the same way they cope with potential predators. As long as walkers do not remain in the area of the nest, but continue walking, the birds will either remain on the nest or will return quickly.

If out with your dog during the bird breeding season, you can reduce the likelihood of disturbing ground nesting birds by keeping your dog on a short lead or under close control in areas where nesting birds may be found.  These areas include moorland, forests, grasslands, loch shores and the seashore.

If wild camping in the Scottish mountains during the breeding season, before deciding on a pitch site, look for signs of nesting birds.

  • If there is a bird repeatedly displaying to attract your attention away, or an agitated bird trying to get to its nest, then look for another pitch.
  • Loch and river edges are prime habitat sites for many birds and as a precaution these are best avoided as camp sites. This advice also helps maintain water hygiene.

Ptarmigan eggs on a nest.

Climbers visiting any crag in Scotland should make efforts beforehand to find out if there are Schedule 1 birds in residence on the crag they intend to visit. 

  • If there are, and there is an advice available for climbers to avoid that area for a specified length of time, then please be prepared to change your plans accordingly. It may be that only some parts of the crag are affected, so other routes can be climbed.

  • The area of crag to avoid can vary depending upon various factors such the topography of the crags, the positional relationship between route and nest, the species involved, the location of approach routes and the tolerance of the individual birds at that site.

If you visit a crag not listed as having specific advice, but then notice bird nesting activity, particularly for a Schedule 1 bird, then the guidance below will help you decide what to do. Your choice of what to do will depend on a combination of the factors outlined below.

  1. As you walk into the crag keep a look out for birds and note where they are flying from and to.

  2. Before starting the route, assess whether there is a nesting site that is being used. The nest site of a peregrine falcon varies from a bare ledge with some twigs to an obvious big collection of sticks, usually with some signs of excrement splashed on the rock below. This can be confused sometimes with a simple roosting site. Eagles nests are huge, but can be set well back on ledges, so not immediately obvious.

  3. Peregrine falcons may well be calling as they fly. Try to notice where they originate from or look more closely for a nest. Eagles tend not to be very vocal, so you may have to rely on watching for flying activity.

Peregrine falcon.

Assess if your presence will be detrimental based on the following factors:

  • How far is the nest from the route? 
  • What is the topography of the crag - is your route separated from the nest by a buttress? 
  • Is the crucial period of egg incubation past? 
Based on all these observations, you may find that the birds settle down and climbing does not cause them to leave the nest. 

If the birds continue to appear agitated, and are staying away from the nest:

  • Find another climb further away, on another part of the crag or indeed on another crag. 
If you have done all of the above and have proceeded responsibly, only to then find a nest site on the route:

  • Make every effort to complete the route as quickly as possible, or retreat if this is the safer, faster option. 
Always exercise caution, and if in doubt avoid climbing when, in your opinion, there may be a reasonable risk of disturbance.

It is an offence to interfere with the nest of any wild bird, or obstruct a bird from using it, either intentionally or recklessly.

It is NOT an offence to disturb most birds, however it is important that climbers follow some basic guidance in order to minimise disturbance to allow both birds and climbers to continue to coexist, and make sure we are not breaking the law. Your access rights also depend upon exercising those rights “responsibly.”

More detailed guidance is available here, as agreed with all relevant agencies.

Osprey in flight

Help prevent wildlife crime

Hill walkers and climbers should report any suspected incidents of wildlife crime to Police Scotland as soon as possible on 101 for historical incidents or 999 for ongoing incidents where there is a risk to property or health. Take a note of the time and location of the incident and description of any suspects. Do not approach suspects as you may put yourself at risk.

Most Divisions of Scotland's one Police Force have Wildlife Liaison Officers assigned to deal with wildlife crime. The following link to PAW Scotland contains a lot more information on wildlife crime including a section on bird crime, see http://www.gov.scot/Topics/Environment/Wildlife-Habitats/paw-scotland.