It began on a cold wet day in April 1993. The area around the dramatic horseshoe of limestone cliffs at the head of Malhamdale would normally be a honeypot for walkers and sightseers, but now there was just a lone figure approaching stealthily across the bleak hillside to the west. Doug Simpson, who surveyed birds of prey nests for the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union, had received a call from a birdwatcher telling him that two peregrines had been seen flying over the area.
“I was one of a small group of enthusiasts whose role was to check crags where they might breed,” he says. “But to be honest I really didn’t think they’d go anywhere near Malham Cove because of all the disturbance. I mean, the precipice is usually crawling with rock climbers and beneath the cliffs or on the limestone pavement at the top of the cove there can be a couple of hundred or more people at any one time on a fine day. Don’t forget, peregrines are birds that go absolutely mad and take fright if you so much as stick your head above a dry stone wall half a mile away.”
Doug approached the cove from the direction of the Malham Tarn road, having decided that the tourist path leading up from the village was far too exposed. It also gave him a bit more height from which to scan the 240ft-high crag for potential nesting sites.
“I remember, I was just thinking what a filthy day it was and wondering why on earth I was wasting my time there when a male peregrine flew past me in the direction of the cove. When I got there I had a good look around and spotted him perched on a tree stump. ‘Yes!’ I thought. ‘We could well be in business here’.”
With the aid of his telescope, it didn’t take Doug long to locate the female, who was on a ledge just a few feet below her partner. By that stage – it was April 20 – she was already sitting on eggs.
The discovery was a key moment for the Yorkshire Dales National Park. At the time, the birds were still recovering from years of persecution, and at one stage had been wiped out as a breeding species in Yorkshire. Feared by gamekeepers for their impact on red grouse numbers, peregrines are, however, a favourite with many birdwatchers. Described by the RSPB as the Ferrari of the bird world, the species was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s fastest animal after being clocked flying at a speed of 217mph.
They have nested annually at the cove since that first time in 1993, and fledged 59 chicks. A decade after Doug’s discovery, the National Park and RSPB got together to set up the Malham Peregrine Watch viewpoint, which this year is expected to receive its 250,000th visitor.
All that was in the future, though, when Doug hurried back to his car to report his find. Within an hour he had alerted the National Park about its new VIP residents and tipped off one of Britain’s top climbers, the late Pete Livesey, whose home was in Malham. Fortuitously, several natural features on the cove formed the limits of a potential restriction area around the nest site and Livesey immediately arranged for British Mountaineering Council signs to be posted, instructing the many gravity-defying climbers who use the cove to keep well clear of the nesting site.
The discovery sent ornithologists raking through records of peregrine nests in Yorkshire to find any previous evidence of breeding on the cove. But the earliest book on Yorkshire birds, written by Thomas Hudson Nelson in 1907, made no mention of the species ever being at Malham, nor were breeding instances cited in other records.
Peregrines, in fact, had fared badly in the Yorkshire Dales for centuries. Historically, the young were stolen from nests for use in falconry. As recently as 1982, two chicks disappeared from a nest. At that time young peregrines were said to be worth £1000 each on the black market. More damaging, though, the birds were heavily persecuted by gamekeepers after grouse moors were established in Victorian times.
So much so, in fact, that a measure of protection was given to them nationally. But just when it looked like the population was recovering, an emergency law was passed during the Second World War to allow peregrines and their nests to be destroyed, the birds having been blamed for intercepting carrier pigeons. It resulted in the killing of at least 600 birds, reducing the population by over 50 per cent. If that wasn’t bad enough, the introduction of organo-chlorine chemicals in agriculture rendered many eggs infertile and subject to eggshell thinning and breakage, causing the population decline to turn into a crash. By the 1950s the peregrine was extinct as a breeding bird in Yorkshire.
Then a miracle happened. In 1977, within a few years of a ban on the use of harmful chemicals, a pair was found breeding on the North Yorkshire-Cumbria border. The nest was put under a 24-hour guard by the RSPB, and the operation was repeated when the birds returned the following year. Slowly, the birds spread eastwards and by 1993, as well as the peregrines at Malham Cove, there were 14 other nests occupied in the Dales.
By word of mouth, the Malham peregrines began to attract so much attention it was an obvious step to establish a low-key viewpoint beside a dry stone wall at the foot of the cove. The RSPB had just launched a campaign called Aren’t Birds Brilliant to involve the public in birdwatching activities at hundreds of sites around the country, and it was the idea of Ian Court, the National Park’s wildlife conservation officer, to suggest a joint peregrine watch with the RSPB at Malham.
“It’s just a fantastic landscape for that kind of project, with the backdrop of the cove,” says Ian. “Plus, the footpath network there is in really good condition, and since the birds had already demonstrated they could tolerate a high level of disturbance from walkers and climbers there were no worries about putting in a viewpoint.
“From a peregrine’s perspective, it’s a great place for them to nest. High on the cove is a superb vantage point from which to spot prey. If you were designing a perfect peregrine nest site then it would probably look something like Malham Cove.”
The appeal of Malham Peregrine Watch is easy to understand. The birds have a well-established routine, especially in the early days. The male will disappear hunting then return with food, often a feral pigeon but even birds like lapwings and green woodpeckers, and call to the female. She leaves the nest calling to her mate, and in one of the most spectacular sights in the bird world flies underneath him, flips onto her back in mid-air and takes hold of the food he has brought for her. Down below, watching these so-called “food passes” at the Peregrine Watch are the highlight of the day.
When the chicks have hatched, their demand for food generates much more activity by both male and female as they go backwards and forwards over a five-mile radius to kill birds. On one occasion the male came back with a dead curlew complete with wings outstretched. It looked like a bi-plane flying across the cove.
The viewpoint is run with the help of volunteer wardens. One of them, David Dimmock, a retired company accountant, says: “It can be hectic when there’s four telescopes in operation. We tend to know where the adults have their regular perches, so the first thing we do when setting up in the morning is locate one of the birds through a lens so there’s something to show early visitors. The weather can be challenging though, with four seasons of climate experienced there in just one day during the early weeks.”
People new to the viewpoint often ask about how the birds feed. They are told that peregrines do not feed on carrion but kill their prey.
Besides managing the viewpoint, the wardens remain vigilant for any activities which might spook the birds. Some visitors who tried to launch drones over the cove were hastily informed they could face prosecution under the Wildlife and Countryside Act for disturbing a protected species. The same thing happened with a base-jumper – someone who was about to jump off the cove then open a parachute with a small explosive charge. A local farmer managed to intercept a group of people who were about to string a slackline – similar to a tightrope – across the cove.
The viewpoint always closes around the end of July. “I get a feeling of sadness when it’s all over,” says Dave Dimmock. “It is almost like waving goodbye to your kids.”
■ Malham Peregrine Watch is open every Thursday to Monday from March 29 to July 30, weather permitting. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. A walk of under one mile is required on good surfaces. Viewing is free but there is a car parking charge at Malham National Park information centre.