Rock & Ice Climbing and Scrambling

For some, part of their love for rock climbing comes from the connection with nature: the exposure to the elements, the views and encounters with wildlife that they get while pitting themselves against nature’s obstacles. Paradoxically, actions in participating in these sports can threaten the continued survival of those fragile habitats and ecosystems.

It only stands to reason therefore, that we do all that we can during our time on the crags to protect and conserve both the structures themselves and the wild species that depend on them.


There are a number of issues related to the use of crags by rock climbers:  Trampling of vegetation, erosion on paths to crags and at the base of climbs, loss of ancient seed banks on ledges during “cleaning” of routes, damage to plants and lichens growing on the cliff face, disturbance of nesting birds, disturbance and displacement of animal species in the vicinity of the crag, and damage to the rock face through bolting and erosion.  In addition to the considerations listed in ‘walking, hiking and picnicking – enjoying the countryside’ section, in order to be a responsible climber, you should also consider the following:

  • Do not remove natural vegetation, including mosses and lichens, without first getting permission from the land owner or the appropriate conservation body. If protected habitats are destroyed by climbing or abseiling, this could be a criminal offence.
  • Gullies and ledges are vulnerable and important habitats. Try to avoid using them for belaying.
  • Avoid damaging the rock itself. Do not chip or deface the cliff, and be mindful not to cause erosion of susceptible rocks by for example, climbing on sandstone in wet conditions, using a wire brush to clean soft rocks such as gritstone, or repeatedly top roping the same routes on limestone.
  • In many areas, the use of fixed equipment is restricted due to landowners’ requests, liability issues, and visibility. Anyone considering installing new fixed equipment, or replacing exiting equipment should carefully consider local climbing ethos, local laws, landowners wishes, the environmental sensitivity of the area, public safety issues, and whether it is absolutely necessary.
  • When abseiling, take particular care not to cause erosion by loosening or polishing rocks. Use fixed abseil stations if these are established by the landowner. Avoid damaging trees by not using them as abseil anchors, or if they need to be used, use tree protectors and avoid trampling on the roots.
  • Climbing routes should only be attempted in winter when fully coated with snow and/or ice in order to prevent damage to the underlying rock. North facing rocks often offer the best winter climbing conditions, but are also home to rare alpine plants. It is therefore important for their conservation that vegetation is completely frozen to minimise damage. Some alpine plants are shallow rooted in moss cushions and can be damaged and easily dislodged by ice axes and crampons. You should avoid removing or loosening vegetation and clearing out cracks for axe placement which may destroy the last remnants of rare plant species.

In most countries, birds are protected by law. In the UK for example, all birds, their eggs and nests are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), and certain rare and endangered species such as the peregrine falcon are further protected by increased penalties. It is a climber’s responsibility not to disturb crag nesting birds. In some countries, crags carry ‘Bird Restrictions’ in the spring (typically from 1st March to 30 June). Climbers should make efforts to find out if there are any birds nesting on the crag they intend to visit and whether there are any restrictions on the right to climb on those crags. Usually, restricted crags will be signed but this is not always the case. In some countries, websites list the latest restrictions (for example, the Regional Access Database in the UK can be accessed from the British Mountaineering Council HERE.

Having checked on the law and any lists of crag restrictions, you should then choose a route. Even if there are no restrictions listed on the crag you head for, when approaching the crag look out for any signs of birds nesting, or being disturbed by your presence. If you do find birds are nesting on the crag, the best choice is to move to another area. If you do decide to climb on the crag, ensure that you are at a distance that can be tolerated by the bird without adversely disturbing them, particularly at times when they are most vulnerable, namely when they are about to or have just laid their eggs, or when the eggs have just hatched. Common indicators that birds are being disturbed include alarm calling, visibly agitated birds, or mock or actual dive bombing. For further and comprehensive advise on birds and how to avoid causing disturbance to them, visit the website of the British Mountaineering Council HERE.

For more information:
The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) has produced a comprehensive ‘Green Guide to the Uplands’ which can be found HERE as well as a Crag Code to encourage the sustainable use of crags in England and Wales which contains good advice wherever you may climb HERE.