Climbers fear curbs on their freedom

A European proposal may limit access to crags. Stephen Goodwin reports
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British climbers will be watching anxiously to see that John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, does not sign away half their rock playgrounds at the "Environment for Europe" conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, next week.

The British Mountaineering Council has forsaken its normally low profile to campaign vigorously against a proposal for climbing bans on cliffs of high biological or landscape value. It believes that about half of Britain's sea cliffs and inland crags could be threatened with sweeping restrictions.

The proposal is contained in just one sub-paragraph of a document entitled Pan-European Biological and Landscape Diversity Strategy due to go before ministers at the conference on Tuesday. It sets out more than 100 recommendations for improving conservation across Europe, mainly affecting forestry and farming.

However, while most of the proposals are couched in rather vague terms, paragraph 10.5 in the "mountain ecosystems" section is quite specific and would affect mountain bikers and ski-mountaineers as well as rock climbers.

It urges governments to "promote schemes for 'no climbing, gliding, off- road or skiing areas/seasons' and legally enforce climbing bans on cliffs important for biological and landscape diversity". In Britain, these would be sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Jeremy Barlow, access and conservation officer for the BMC, said the council did not accept that climbing and other informal outdoor recreation had an effect on landscape.

He also emphasised climbers' support for voluntary restrictions during the bird-nesting season. Each year, in co-operation with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the council publishes a detailed list of cliffs subject to restrictions.

One example from this year's list is Craig Gogarth on Anglesey, one of Britain's most challenging sea cliffs with routes of around 350 feet. But the cliff is also a nesting ground for puffins, guillemots and choughs and so from February to the end of July a voluntary ban was in force in sensitive areas. The Countryside Council for Wales described the arrangements as "a model example of a good practice site".

This is the type of approach the BMC would like substituted for paragraph 10.5, and it could be acceptable to the Dutch-based European Centre for Nature Conservation which drafted the Sofia strategy.

The Sofia meeting - which will be attended ministers of the Council Europe, a wider grouping than the European Union - will deal primarily with the environmental problems of eastern and central Europe.

"Although the strategy will not be legally binding, we must assume that European governments will take it seriously and will seek to implement as many of the proposals as possible," Mr Barlow said.

Mr Gummer's department yesterday described the strategy as a "wish list" and said there would be wide consultation, "including with mountain people", before anything was concluded. A DoE spokeswoman said: "The document will not be the same when it comes out. The strategy will be seen at Sofia as a nice idea in principle but it needs to be workable and costed."

Climbers remain apprehensive, however, fearing that even agreement in principle could be used by landowners and conservation bodies to justify bans and restrictions.

Gill Kent, editor of the magazine On The Edge, said the prospect of the loss of a cliff like Gogarth was "absolutely unthinkable" and would have climbers up in arms. But the more likely threat was to smaller crags where access might to be eroded without galvanising an "essentially laid-back community". She added: "We will be watching with concern for what comes out of the meeting. It could provide a perfect opportunity for anybody who has got a gripe against climbers and wants to turf them off a crag."