The Gannets and The Climmers

In my last gannet post the bird I showed was quite far off so here’s another one which alighted on the cliff just 10m or so from where I stood.

Sizing me up to decide whether I posed any threat

And it quickly reached the conclusion that this shivering piece of humanity obviously would pose no threat whatsoever and landed close by on the cliff:

I think this is a particularly elegant touch down for such a big bird, avoiding injury whilst landing on a tiny piece of cliff in very strong winds.

It wasn’t at all bothered by my presence or the whirring of the shutter, and in the absence of any other predators up on the cliffs, now that the ‘climmers‘ are no more, this chap didn’t see me as a potential danger.

Climmers were men who’s job was to harvest seabird eggs from the cliffs by abseiling over the edge. I found this remarkable piece of film at the Yorkshire Film Archive of climmers doing their work. It’s absolutely not for the feint hearted!

As well as the climmers the Victorian passion for shooting anything and everything wild was shockingly indulged on the 18 miles of cliffs between Bempton and Scarborough. Boat loads of day trippers would set sail and shoot hundreds of birds every day, and in a book of 1838 entitled ‘Essays on Natural History’ by one Charles Waterton he estimated that between April and August 108,000 birds were shot. I don’t know if the shot birds were eaten, but the slaughter was primarily for ‘sport’ (!), and the feathers were also used in huge numbers in the millinery trade.

As a result the ‘Association for the Protection of Sea-Birds’ (APSB) was founded in 1868 in Bridlington by local naturalists including the vicar of Bridlington in an attempt to prevent the annual carnage taking place just a few miles away on their local cliffs.

Then in June 1869 protection of the birds was enshrined in law with the passing of the ‘Sea Birds Preservation Act’. This provided protection for 35 species by introducing a closed season between April 1st and August 1st, and apparently the first successful prosecution under the Act took place in Bridlington on 10 July 1869 after a Mr Tasker, of Sheffield, had shot 28 birds. He was fined a total of £3 19s!

And the result of the dedication of those Victorian naturalists, pioneers at a time when animal welfare was very low on the political agenda, is the multitudes of birdlife to be seen on the cliffs today. Hats off to those splendid folk!

38 responses to “The Gannets and The Climmers

  1. I totally agree, the photos are fabulous and the background information was very interesting.

  2. The photos make me smile. I just love the colour on its neck, that waft of pinky brown. I’m follwing this blog their latest post is really worth a look for bird lovers – it’s very moving you might need a handkerchief

  3. Hi Finn great blog and lovely photos what amazing eyes the Gannets have. It was also a good reminder of how important it is to create legal protection for habitats and species and I’m reminded of how important the current debate for protected marine reserves is. So far its taken 15 years just to get Defra to agree to 31 marine reserves out of a 127 MCZs. BBC news just reported it was the sailing and angling industry that are proving difficult to get support from as they feel it will impact upon their sport. Goodness how do we get them onside, do they really want empty seas to drop anchor in and fish?

    • I believe there is growing evidence to show that creating marine reserves and no fishing zones can play a significant part in ensuring sustainability. It does beg the question ‘Why aren’t we doing this quicker and more effectively?’. I guess the anglers and the sailors are best placed to answer that. But as you say, why on earth do sailors have a problem with conservation areas? I’d be very keen to see the arguments from them if you know of a suitable link.

  4. Hi Finn,

    Here’s a fascinating account looking into the Gannet’s feeding behaviour.

  5. Hats off indeed Finn :). Those photos are amazing! After seeing those Climmers I am imagining you clinging tencaciously to the rocks to get those shots but obviously you were taking more care than the climmers! It would be interesting to see what the stats were “Seabird eggs vs. climmer deaths” as I dare say it wouldn’t have been a very safe job. Again, beautiful photography of a beautiful (but very suspicious) bird 🙂

    • Thanks Fran, don’t worry, what you can’t see in the pictures is the sturdy fence the RSPB have erected all along the top of the cliffs.

      Interestingly, I thought the same as you regarding the health and safety aspects of climming, but on the information board at the top of the cliffs it said there was only only one recorded fatality, which I must confess I find hard to believe.

  6. An interesting account as ever Finn. As you say, this kind of barbaric action is seemingly carried out by the odd individual who feels he or she is beyond reproach. Yes, there are well-keepered estates, the like of which are brim full of wildlife. Whilst at the same time, one or two rogue individuals will illegally control raptors at such estates which will only seek to damage their reputation. This has always been a hotly-debated topic and as someone who does his birding around such estates, I find it amazing how quickly people either fall into one camp or the other, when it comes to discussing such sports (not my choice of word, either). For me, the most despicable acts are not those undertaken on reared Pheasants and Partridges, but those, as in your post, on the wild birds such as the Gannet. A similarly linked discussion is the shooting of millions and millions of wild birds on passage over France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Malta and the like, twice annually. Add that lot up and I firmly believe that particular act of selfishness is ultimately unsustainable too. Anyway, moving on, I don’t want this splitting us cheery chappies/chappesses into separate camps either. Keep on posting, Finn, informative stuff as ever.

    • Hello Tony,

      I’m absolutely with you on the subject of the songbird slaughter over southern Europe during the migrations, I think it is entirely unsustainable, and for no good reason either. The cretins that do this don’t need to do it to survive so I wish the EU would ban all trapping and severely restrict shooting and impose heavy penalties for those caught doing it! Similarly for the gamekeepers in this country who decimate bird of prey populations, although I think the UK is probably better at this than a lot of other countries.

      Don’t worry about splitting opinion though, a debate on these issues is a healthy past time. You’re always welcome to a good rant on this blog 🙂

      • Many Thanks for your kind words Finn. With the many issues facing our wildlife right now, I tend to stand largely on the middle ground, which is probably the safest ground on which to position oneself. Take for example, the diminishing numbers of pollinators returning annually to our crops. Yes, I see the need for some insecticide usage but I don’t see why it cannot be targeted to specific areas of cropped land. Predation control can equally be effective in certain circumstances, take for example, the removal of rats from seabird colonies. So many topics to consider and so many angles, by which, to look at them. That by itself, was the main reason for bringing up yesterday’s slightly off-topic discussion point.

      • Hello Tony, it seems to me that some kind of balance has to be struck between the burgeoning human population, the increasing destruction of the world around us – atmosphere, land and sea – and the rapacious consumption we are all actively encouraged to indulge in. The planet is already making corrections of its own (e.g. climate change) in order to manage the environmental destruction being committed by our species and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if we continue this way for much longer our legacy to the next generations is going to be a toxic one.

        And relating directly back to your point, I think all the issues faced by the worlds wildlife can be relieved to some degree if us humans could bring ourselves to change the way we do things. But is that likely? I’m not sure it is. We can see climate change really taking hold now and what are we doing to limit the destruction? Not enough and not soon enough, we still have to have our 3D TV’s and our iPhone upgrades every year to keep the wheels of commerce oiled. Until Cameron, Osborne, Obama’s houses are flooded and their children go hungry it won’t be politically expedient to change things fast enough.

        Consequently I’ve got both feet in the camp of doing whatever is necessary to mitigate the worst environmental excesses and to minimise the damage, and doing it now. Which is one good reason why I could never run for public office 🙂

  7. Such a wonderful post with beautiful shots of this guy! Thanks for the lesson.

    But wow… Those numbers. Disgusting and tragic. The human species always amazes, and not always in a happy way.

    • Isn’t it unbelievable. Even if slaughtering animals is ones idea of ‘sport‘ what was the mindset that made these people kill absolutely everything? It’s insane!

      • It’s completely mind-boggling… INSANE, like you say. And now they’re talking about bringing back extinct species. How about helping those that are on their WAYS to going extinct? Sigh.

      • I do wonder what the whole ‘Jurassic Park‘ mindset is all about. I reckon that stuff should remain firmly in the realm of science fiction and real scientists should be busy convincing the decision makers that the existing state of affairs has to be changed!

  8. Fantastic photos of a very striking fellow, Finn. This reminds me of St Kilda, where they used to catch auks for food by climbing barefoot up sheer cliffs or hanging on by horse hair ropes. A very tough existence.

    • Hello Lorna, I have the ultimate respect for those hardy folk who dangle over 300ft cliffs on handmade ropes to harvest the eggs and some of the birds for food in order to survive. And of course that was before the days of supermarkets at a time when all the kids new exactly where their meat came from!

  9. This is a fantastic post. The photos, the history.

    • Thanks Sam, and from your part of the world too. I may try to delve more into the history of wildlife protection legisaltion in a future post, it’s fascinating stuff and shows what can be done when the vox populi speaks to the lawmakers!

  10. This is fantastic!

  11. PS
    Have you seen this story?… if you haven’t you might find it interesting

  12. It’s such a sad thing that these birds were killed for “sport”! And sadder yet that there are still men around who will do things like that.

    • It was the sheer scale of the slaughter that I found so tragic. People were flocking in from many miles away simply to put to sea and blast the birds from the cliff face. Sport? I think not. But I live in hope that the number of people, men and women (Mrs Palin being a classic case in point), who think that massacring animals is a good thing to do, is decreasing.

  13. Beautiful work, Finn. Your second shot is by far my favorite; how right you are with your description of its touchdown as elegant. But the third shot is also extraordinary–I’ve never seen a gannet photo made from quite this angle. It gives it insight into another personality that one doesn’t often see in images of their serenely graceful flight. Thanks for this new insight.

    • Hello Gary, thanks for your comment. I’m pleased you noticed the angle in that picture, it seemed to me the bird was scrutinising me. We looked at each other and then it got on with preening whilst I stood close by and shot lots more pictures of it and the other sea birds around and about. And then I thanked it for it’s time and headed off back along the cliff top. It was a precious few minutes spent in its company.

  14. Wonderful photos Finn.
    What an intriguing and finally heart warming little nugget of history… the Anglo Saxon passion for ” sport”, especially killing things is a real nightmare…thank goodness for the others… who are still so often seen as eccentric…

    • Hello Valerie, I’ve never comprehended the desire in so many folk to slaughter animals. And they have the gall to call it sport and behave as though it’s a divine right. I think it’s a psychiatric disorder and these people should be locked into asylums, not let loose with guns! It’s an anachronism that should be discouraged and legislated against.

  15. Superb photos Finn and a very interesting post as always.

  16. Pingback: Bempton, yellowhammer and gannets | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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