Country & Coast: Packed ‘city’ on the cliffs comes alive

Bempton draws visitors to the colonies of bird species residing on the cliff face.
Bempton draws visitors to the colonies of bird species residing on the cliff face.
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I LIKE to think of lonely Bempton, stuck out on the far perimeter of Yorkshire’s rolling Wolds farmland, as one of our great cities. Only Leeds, Sheffield, Hull and Bradford have more inhabitants, although if you check the 2011 UK Census it will say the parish has a population of just 1,040.

The vast majority of Bempton’s citizens, however, are to be found one mile beyond the village, on dizzyingly vertiginous 400ft high chalk cliffs that every spring become home to over a quarter of a million seabirds.

It is an annual pilgrimage for me and many others to stand on the viewpoints provided by the RSPB and be overwhelmed by the cacophony of noise and the sight of birds defying all rules of air traffic control, not to mention the fishy smell of bird poo which comes from the tightly packed colonies of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmars, puffins, shags and gannets.

May and June are the best times to visit Bempton if you want to see the guillemots and razorbills at their peak, squabbling among themselves as they jostle for space on ledges sometimes just a few inches wide, and darting back and forth in large squadrons to catch sand eels further out in the North Sea.

The puffins, everyone’s favourite bird here and known as sea parrots because of their comical colour bills, are also busy nesting, preferring to use holes burrowed deep into the cliff top, and their feeding forays have been tracked as far as the large sandbank known as the Dogger Bank, about 60 miles offshore, as have those of kittiwakes, which mainly nest further south at Flamborough Head.

But Bempton’s most successful species is the gannet, the largest seabird found in our waters with a wingspan of almost 7ft in length.

Before the Second World War just the occasional gannet was spotted at Bempton, but in 1948 a few pairs began to breed and by 1970 there were 24 nests.

Ten years later there were 280 nests, and today the nesting population is well in excess of 12,000 pairs, the birds flying as far as 400-mile round trips to bring food back to their young.

The RSPB now has a remote camera attached to the cliff face to get up close to the gannet colony, and live pictures of birds mating, or feeding their chicks, can be watched in the reserve’s new visitor centre.

The camera even has a windscreen wiper to clear the lens of bird poo.

It’s not just breeding adults found at Bempton. On some parts of the cliffs there are ‘clubs’, which are sort of youth clubs where dark-speckled immature birds not yet old enough to breed tend to congregate, waiting for their turn to choose mates and build nests.

For us curiously intruding humans, the magic of Bempton is watching the ceaseless comings and goings of birds to and from their precarious nests and the endless soap opera being played out on every ledge of this crowded cliff side.