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.
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.”
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.
Here is a little essential knowledge of some Schedule 1 bird behaviour to allow climbers to judge what action to take. It is not definitive, but is a useful guide. Following the guidance we offer on this page may help to show you were not being reckless in the event that you accidentally disturb birds.
However, a climber who becomes aware of the presence of a nest or nesting or young birds and starts a climb or continues to climb in the vicinity should appreciate that such action may be interpreted as “reckless” anyway.
The timescales for bird nesting are usually within the period of early February to end of July.
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 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.
Assess if your presence will be detrimental based on the following factors:
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
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.
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 wild camping in the Scottish mountains during the breeding season, before deciding on a pitch site, look for signs of nesting birds.
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.
Schedule 1 – relevant species in Scotland:
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.