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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

Humans and birds cohabit all over the UK. Birds nest in very close proximity to constant human activity and can be described as being disturbed all the time. They can become habituated to this. This is why many birds still nest on crags that are popular with climbers. Obviously not all disturbance is a problem.

Disturbance is any intentional or reckless incident that results in a change in the natural behaviour of the bird. Some single disturbance incidents may be more damaging than others but it should also be borne in mind that minor incidents may have a cumulative effect which can be equally damaging. Most birds will act instinctively to protect their eggs and young when they perceive a threat. Different species react in different ways. 

Peregrine falcon disturbance

  • Will often react initially to human presence by calling, often repeatedly and aggressively. 
  • May return to the nest when they perceive there is no real threat fairly quickly, or only do so once you move to a distance acceptable to them. 
  • Can be difficult for non-ornithologists to judge when a peregrine falcon’s call changes from normal activity to that of a protection call. Listen for a more aggressive tone. 
  • If the bird flies from the nest and stays away, then they have been disturbed too much and it becomes detrimental to breeding success, and you should retreat to another position out of the disturbance zone, which may mean around a buttress or away from the crag completely.

Eagle disturbance 

  • Much more prone to disturbance from a distance. 
  • Tend to simply fly off and sit quietly until the hazard has left, so it can be very difficult to know if you are disturbing nest. 
  • Although their nests are huge they are generally located on areas of more broken crag with ledges and can be very difficult to spot, even with binoculars. 
  • Climbers need to be vigilant at all times, especially when walking in to the crag, and even when late season winter climbing.

The extent of a minimum tolerance zone around a nest site will be dependent on how used to humans they are. 

If the crag is very popular then any nesting birds will probably be more habituated to the presence of climbers. Habituated peregrines may be able to accept climbing in quite close proximity such as on a separate buttress, or around the other side of an arête. 

At crags in more remote areas, where there is little climbing activity, and at eagle nest sites, the minimum tolerance zone will be more extensive.

Buzard by Annie MacDonald

Golden eagle by Annie MacDonald

Merganser by Annie MacDonald

Certain rare or more endangered species - listed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 - have increased levels of protection and penalties. 

Schedule 1 status makes it an offence to disturb these birds while they are building a nest, are near a nest containing young, or dependent young (even when they are away from the nest), either deliberately or recklessly.

Many Schedule 1 species are ground-nesting or tree-nesting birds, but some are found on crags and sea cliffs. The Schedule 1 species that climbers most commonly encounter on crags are the peregrine falcon and the golden eagle. 

Golden eagle chicks

A little more detail...

  • For Schedule 1 birds, it is also an offence to disturb dependent fledged young - young birds which have moved away from the nest but are still dependent to some extent on their parents for food and protection. In the case of the golden eagle and the white-tailed eagle, even interfering with an habitually-used nest site is an offence (Schedule A1). This applies even if the birds are not there. If arrested, police will also take your climbing equipment as evidence at the trial, which of course can often take some time!

  • The law does not define either “near” or "disturbance”. It would be difficult to do this, as each bird species is different, and individual birds can vary considerably in their behaviour and tolerance. Usually what happens is a prosecution would call upon expert witnesses to testify that disturbance occurred.

  • “Recklessly” is not defined, but will probably be assessed objectively, and will involve some disregard by the person who disturbs the bird of the consequences for the bird.

Birds you may encounter when climbing

Schedule 1 – relevant species in Scotland:

  • Chough (cliff nesting – mainly sea cliffs)
  • Corncrake (ground nesting in Machair grass areas)
  • Divers (all species) (nests at lochan fringes)
  • Dotterel (ground nesting on high hills) 
  • Fieldfare (ground nesting) 
  • Golden Eagle (cliff nesting – mainly mountain)
  • Grebes (nests on and around lochs) 
  • Green Shank (ground nesting in straths) 
  • Harriers (all species) (ground nesting – usually in deep heather)
  • Hobby (ground and tree nesting)
  • Merlin (usually ground nesting)
  • Peregrine (cliff nesting) 
  • Red Kite (tree nesting)
  • White-tailed Eagle (sea and inland cliffs, trees)

Other birds you may meet in the hills:

Remember, they are all protected by law against 'interference' if not 'disturbance': buzzard, kestrel, raven, wren, wagtail, sparrow, jackdaw, swallow, house martin, puffin, guillemot, razorbill, fulmar, kittiwake, cormorant and shag.

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.