Life on the edge
Seabirds, whales, seals, roe deer and lizards - all life is here at Bempton Cliffs and Spurn. Claire Casey dons her binoculars for a closer look.
Four hundred feet up a deserted clifftop, early on a gusty September morning, it’s eerily quiet. As I approach the edge of the cliff and look down from a sturdy wooden balcony, the noise of a thousand seabirds suddenly erupts from the cove beneath, only audible as I reach the edge. The orchestra of yells and shrieks is deafening as the birds hover, swoop and drift, whipped around on the high wind.
The rocks below are seething with gannets, like barnacles clinging to the hull of a boat. It’s an incredible sight. These goldenheaded, blue-eyed birds are strikingly beautiful. I could stand and watch for hours as they fence, nestle and preen, spruce up their nests, take off on a fishing trip or curl up and sleep on the narrow ledges, oblivious to the howling wind and the rapid-fire of camera shutters.
It’s the stuff of David Attenborough; a wildlife spectacle in glorious technicolour and I’m right in amongst it. I’m at the famous Bempton Cliffs on Yorkshire’s North Sea coast where nature presents a theatre of breathtaking proportions all year round. TV nature programmes have recorded hours of film here, professional and amateur photographers from across the world have crouched and dangled precariously from the observation points with their zoom lenses and birdwatchers or ‘twitchers’ spend days with binoculars firmly fixed to their faces in the hope of catching a glimpse of something rare.
The keenest bird-lovers think nothing of driving hundreds of miles when alerted by internet bird watching forums to a rare sighting. An endangered black-browed albatross, thousands of miles from its usual home in the southern hemisphere, has been spotted here on three separate occasions in recent months creating excitement on a global scale.
This RSPB-protected habitat, just a few minutes’ drive from Bridlington, is the only mainland nesting site in England for a staggering 500,000 gannets, kittiwakes, guillemots, puffins, fulmars and many more.
Senior site manager and keen photographer, Ali Barratt, returned to her Flamborough home after several years working in Canada, America and Australia on a variety of marine conservation projects. She talks passionately about the wildlife she’s in charge of protecting. “We have all the theatre and drama right here. There’s no need for anyone to travel further than this hidden gem. This is the most accessible seabird colony in the UK and it’s a privilege to work in such a stunning location.”
I could have stayed all day and fellow visitors agreed. My autumn visit meant I was too late to see the comical puffins, who visit from March to July and then migrate, but there’s still plenty of colour and pageantry with dozens of species of birds coming and going all year round. I’m no expert or avid birdwatcher but the beauty of Bempton and Flamborough is that you don’t have to be. If you can’t tell the difference between a gannet and a gull, you soon will. And you’ll actually end up wanting to.
Equally ardent in his love of Bempton is the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Tom Marshall, who also joined me on the clifftops. Tom, who looks after the Yorkshire Nature Triangle as well (between, Flamborough, Spurn and the North Cave Wetlands) has several years’ experience working for the RSPB in Scotland, photographing wildlife in New Zealand and working with the Cheshire Wildlife Trust before coming back to roost in Yorkshire. He agreed with me that for a lot of us our appreciation of nature can strike much later on in life.
“I’ve loved birds and wildlife all my life but some people’s eyes are only opened and interest sparked when they get older. A friend of mine who was never really interested recently asked me where he could get some good binoculars. It’s never too late to develop an interest and you don’t need lots of sophisticated equipment.”
My iPhone takes decent pictures and I manage to take some really dramatic shots - though my selfie with a gannet doesn’t quite work out. Now, however, I’m inspired to blow the dust off my proper camera and get cracking at some proper photography. And since visiting here I’ve taken a keen interest in what’s going on with the bird life in my garden.
There are a variety of photography workshops for professionals and amateurs alike which are run all year round by Yorkshire Coast Nature in partnership with the RSPB. And if photography isn’t your thing but you’re still fascinated by birds, there is a huge choice of birding discovery days available around the Yorkshire coast, forests, moors and the wolds.
As well as getting close to the action from six cliffedge viewing platforms, inside the seabird centre there’s an exciting exhibition area with large TV screens showing live close-up images from the cliffs where you can soak it all up in comfort with a hot cup of Yorkshire Tea and a slice of cake. And don’t be put off if you’re less able-bodied. Bempton prides itself on being one of the most accessible places with mobility scooters to borrow and excellent pathways and ramps for wheelchairs.
But this part of the coast isn’t all about the birds. Friends are amazed when I tell them you can go whale-watching on this coast. Whitby is a favourite spot during autumn’s early evenings where purpose-built pleasure boats set out from the harbour to search for minke whales that come down from the Arctic. And there’s never a shortage of seals bobbing up and down on the sea surface to take a look at you, looking at them!
From these vibrant chalk cliffs, I make my way 50 miles south down the coast which stretches across the Holderness plain with its sandy dunes to the wetlands of the Humber Estuary and Spurn Point. This thin strip of land is constantly battered and eroded by the fierce North Sea which has swept away more than 30 villages and settlements since the 19th century. Google now only gives it an ‘approximate’ postcode, but Spurn is still home to a precious variety of migrant birds and other wildlife, including Roe deer, lizards, grey seals and various species of insect. A lucky few may spot a whale on its autumn migration – a Humpback has even been seen off Spurn recently.
The vast nature reserve here has been owned and managed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust since 1960. Its popularity with photographers, bird enthusiasts, walkers and daytrippers is as high as ever. As I arrive in the village of Kilnsea at early lunchtime, the nearby Blue Bell Café, is buzzing. A new state of the art visitor centre has opened with ample car parking to accommodate the huge number of visitors it attracts.
The centre has been designed so as not to disturb the birds’ breeding grounds. It also stands on a specially designed flood-resistant structure of steel and boulders.
As well as discovering the wildlife, visitors will be able to learn more about the rich history of Spurn at the new centre. The remains of defence installations from World War I still litter the beach and it is home to the UK’s only full-time Lifeboat station established in 1810. Lighthouses have existed here since 1427 but were successively swept away in storms. Derelict and unused since the 1980s, the existing lighthouse, built in 1893, was brought back to life and reopened to the public in 2016. Its 144 steps are not for the faint-hearted – though one 90-year-old in my group climbs the lot and back down again without breaking a sweat. The reward at the top is a truly stunning panoramic view which you can also see on a big screen at the bottom of the lighthouse.
The diversity of our Yorkshire coast means that in just one day you can experience the high bracing clifftops of Bridlington and then the contrasting flat, sandy tidal island of Spurn with a hearty lunch in between. If you have a few days to spare it’s worth a longer trip along this stretch of coast, taking in many more wonderful wildlife habitats including the Living Seas Centre and Danes Dyke beach at Flamborough and Hornsea Mere, Yorkshire’s biggest freshwater lake.
While parts of the Yorkshire coast like Spurn are quite literally shifting and eroding, those who look after it are constantly adapting it as sympathetically as possible for the needs and expectations of the modern tourist while taking the upmost care to preserve the environment and its precious wildlife for all of us - man and beast.
This article was taken from This is Y 2018