Climbing in Catalunya - an uncertain future.
© Wikipedia, Sep 2008
The Medi Ambient (Environment Agency) of Lleida has recently published a draft proposal detailing measures aimed at protecting certain species of flora and fauna on some of the most important cliffs of western Catalunya. If fully implemented, these measures would severely limit activity in what is generally regarded one of the finest climbing locations in Europe.
The proposals concentrate on an area about 150 — 200 kilometres northwest of Barcelona, in the districts of La Noguera and Alt Urgell, and if these names are not especially familiar to most UK climbers, then perhaps those of some of the cliffs there are: Terradets, Vilanova de Meià, Camarasa and Santa Linya, to name just a few.
In essence, the proposal covers 6 species of birds of prey:
And two species of plant:
In addition, the development of new cliffs, together with the establishment of new routes in existing areas, would be severely limited and need to be 'vetted' first by the authorities. Furthermore, signs informing climbers of the restrictions would be placed on all approach roads and paths, and even stuck to the rock at the base of routes, just so there is no possible confusion about which climbs are affected.
A Personal View - Pete O'Donovan
I've been climbing on a regular basis in Catalunya, especially the western part, for 20 years, and have come to feel a real bond with the place. It's not just the climbing (although areas like Terradets and Vilanova de Meià undoubtedly offer some of the best limestone-sport action you'll find anywhere) but the landscape and wildlife too. In recent years the fame of its cliffs has spread far and wide, and there are many more visitors to the area now than when I first started climbing there. On the face of it (and I'm pretty sure this is what the environment folk think) the increased numbers of climbers could certainly be said to impact on bird species sharing the same space, especially the larger birds of prey, which typically require plenty of space.
However, this to me is too simplistic a view. The reality
is that western Catalunya is a BIG landscape, much of it desolate,
with deep gorges and enormous limestone cliffs stretching (often) as
far as the eye can see. At present, the amount of rock actually
climbed on is tiny as a proportion of the whole, and nearly always
the most easily accessible, i.e. closest to roads. Strange then that
shy, retiring creatures such as Eagles and Hawks should choose to
nest on the cliffs nearest human disturbance (traffic noise), when
they have kilometres of untouched rock walls in far more secluded
locations, whose isolated position makes them utterly impractical as
projects for climbing development. A good example of this is the
gorge of Camarasa, an area long popular with local climbers due to
its proximity to the major city of the area, Lleida, but now
increasingly visited by enthusiasts from further afield. Although the
gorge is deep, the cliffs themselves are not high — about 30
metres, maximum — and spread across the lower slopes on the north
side of the gorge, just above the river Segre. There's a busy main
road (C13) on the other side, an impressive feat of engineering cut
into the rock about 50 metres above the river, disappearing into a
tunnel before traversing a huge dam and skirting a vast reservoir
(Panta de Camarasa). On a normal day, traffic noise competes with the
roar of water as it passes through though Hydro electric plant
situated below the dam. All in all, not the quietest of places!
A similar case could be put for the amazing Paret de les Bruixes at Terradets, acknowledged as one of the finest single sport crags in the world, and scene of cutting edge activity by the likes of Dani Andrada, Patxi Usobiaga and our own Steve McClure. The angle of the rock here ranges from slightly, to very, overhanging — fine for extreme climbers and nesting Crag Martens (and they still come every year, despite the presence of climbers) but an impossible habitat for the big raptors. And, like Camarasa, the climbing here is concentrated in a very small area, on the lowest (and closest to the road) of several extensive rock bands marching up and away across the hillside. Once again, the proposed ban here is TOTAL. Further along, in the main gorge of Terradets, the 'big walls' of Paret de les Bagasses and Roca Regina, host to some of the finest multi-pitch routes in Spain, would be lost for six months of the year, as would the nearby (and equally fantastic) Vilanova de Meià.
At this point I should state that, like
many climbers, both here and in Spain, I fully support sensible
measures for the protection of wildlife — particularly birds of
prey, but my experiences on the cliffs of Catalunya over 20 years
does not lead me to believe that what I do for a hobby constitutes a
major threat to their continued existence!
Incidentally, I'm no expert, but it has occurred to me that the presence of so many of one species of top predator (Gyps fulvus) in an area could possibly be detrimental to the prospects of other similar species sharing the same habitat? Perhaps someone more knowledgeable on the subject would care to offer an opinion?
According to my sources in Catalunya, the main instigators behind the draft proposal are a couple of high-ranking officials who apparently view climbers as only slightly higher up the social scale than drug-pushers and paedophiles. On their advice, restrictions have recently come into force in several other Catalan climbing locations — Montserrat (south side), Sadernes (an excellent though little known spot near Girona) and Montsant. If they are allowed to carry on like this half the rock in the country could soon be out of bounds. Given the numbers of foreign climbers visiting the area each year, I'd be amazed if the government just rolled over and let this go ahead, but stranger things have happened. The Catalan climbers themselves were initially supportive of the restrictions, but see these latest proposals as a total overreaction. Currently the forums are buzzing with comment, and ideas being exchanged on the best coarse of action. They will certainly not give in without a fight. I intend to do everything I possibly can to help, including making sure that all the departments of the local (Lleida) government (not just the nature conservationists) realize the importance of their part of the world to climbers.
I will report back with further developments as and when they happen. In the meantime any comments, supportive or otherwise, would be gratefully received.