Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Wild life versus wildlife

This weekend I found myself with a group of friends and family loitering at the bottom of a dark, dramatic, tumbling waterfall in the Yorkshire Dales. We weren't admiring the view, though it was stunning. We were discussing the pro's and cons of scrambling up it - and not because we were intimidated by it. A British Mountaineering Council notice at the base of the scramble warned of peregrines potentially (a key word as you will discover) nesting in the crags above the waterfall. If they were there, had decided to nest, and were disturbed, they could fly off, leaving the eggs to chill and die.

For me it was obvious. I'm a conservationist. Of course we shouldn't risk it. There was an easy detour we could use to get to the top of the climb which would keep us well away from the potential nest site.

For my companions - all keen climbers, it wasn't so cut and dried. They'd been looking forward to the excitement and fun of clambering up the gnarly, limestone rocks, and gaining height quickly. I'd been looking forward to it too. I'm not a climber but I enjoy playing at being a fearless, mountaineering type, safe in the knowledge that it's actually quite safe and escapable. I like feeling the cold, rough rocks with my hands, smelling the mossy-earth close to my nostrils. But climbing's not what defines me as it does them.

They felt that because it was only a 'potential' nest site, and because they'd seen no sign of peregrines, it wouldn't do any harm to at least make a start on the climb, with the proviso that if any birds were spotted we'd back off. I said I'd seen signs of a peregrine kill further down the gorge. My daughter said she's spotted some pellets. Not conclusive, they thought - might not be this waterfall. I said if we disturb them the eggs could chill - backing off isn't enough.

We stood for what seemed like hours but was probably more like twenty minutes trying to come to a decision. The climbers said they felt the number of places they were free to climb was gradually being eroded by increasing concerns about disturbance to wildlife - soon there will be nowhere left, they worried. There was a sense of frustration. I could tell they genuinely didn't want to disturb the birds - they just wanted to believe they probably weren't there. These are people who climb not only for the adrenaline rush but for the freedom and wildness of the experience - the very experiences many naturalists are trying to reignite in us all.They love wild-life too. We were torn between wanting to feel the wild and needing to protect it.

We didn't climb the ghyll in the end. They decided the scramble would keep for another day, and we headed up a vertiginous grassy cliff that was probably twice as risky! We saw no peregrines, though a pair of ravens wheeled above the head of the crags - probably equally grateful we hadn't invaded their territory.

And the moral of the tale? I think the moral is that we all need to be able to understand each others' points of view more clearly.  Many of us (myself definitely included), move in a bubble of certainty because most of the people we have close contact with - friends, work colleagues etc - think the same way we do, have many of the same experiences we do, and similar priorities. Because I was with climbers I was able to understand the temptation to go ahead - the lure of the scramble just in front of us that we'd walked several miles to enjoy.  If my climbing friends had had more experience of peregrines, maybe seen and identified them in the wild, the birds' welfare may have moved up their priority list.

If we deplore the rise in nature deficit disorder among our children, and strive to reverse it, we're going to have to find a way to accommodate thousands - maybe millions - more people wanting experience a wilder life. Seeing the world through a climber's eyes might be a good place to start.

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