© Heather Davison-Smith

Life on the edge

An iconic part of the area’s natural history, the Flamborough and Filey coast is home to the UK’s largest and most accessible mainland breeding seabird colony. Each spring, almost half a million seabirds return to the cliffs to raise their young, before heading back out to sea for the winter.

The sights, sounds and smells of this ‘seabird city’ have enthralled people for generations – where once seabirds were killed for their glorious plumage and the local community would depend on their eggs as a vital source of food, visitors now enjoy the wildlife spectacle and marvel at the birds’ abilities to raise chicks on sheer cliff faces over the temperamental North Sea.

The seabirds, and the cliffs they depend on, are protected and managed to support this internationally-important colony.

The A Life on the Edge Storyboard, positioned at Jubilee viewpoint at RSPB Bempton Cliffs, shows how local people, known as ‘climmers’ would abseil down the sheer chalk cliffs to collect seabird eggs as an important food source.  Using just a harness and a single rope, the men would collect guillemot, razorbill and kittiwake eggs, though being careful not to over-harvest and leaving every third egg to ensure supplies for the following year. Once back on the cliff top, the eggs were carefully sorted, with some being taken home for eating and others being auctioned off to egg collectors. Some were even sold for use in sugar refining and the manufacture of patent leather.

The collecting of bird eggs is now illegal, but for centuries prior to the Wild Birds Protection Act 1954, climming not only provided families with food, but also generated a small but much needed income.

© Martin Jones-Gill

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