Climbing in Catalunya - an uncertain future.

by Pete O'Donovan Sep/2008
This article has been read 7,911 times
photo
Egyptian Vulture
© Wikipedia, Sep 2008
Climbing in Catalunya - an uncertain future.

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:

  • Griffin Vulture (Gyps fulvus)
  • Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)
  • Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus)
  • Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
  • Bonelli's Eagle (Hieraaetus fasciatus)
  • Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus).


And two species of plant:

  • Delphinium bolosii
  • Petrocoptis montsicciana.


photo
Santana, an excellent, recently developed area on the Catalunya-Aragon border. 6 month...
© Pete O'Donovan, Sep 2008

photo
Doméneque Garcia on Paris Hilton (8b) at Santana. A route with ascents by (amongst...
© Pete O'Donovan, Sep 2008
In the case of the two Eagles and Peregrine Falcon, the proposed restrictions would limit climbing to a period outside the nesting season (1st July —14th January). On cliffs where any of the three species of Vulture nest, the climbing ban would be TOTAL. On cliffs where either of the two plant species is known to exist, the climbing ban would be TOTAL.

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!

photo
Climber on Daniel or Tiger (7c), Sant Llorenç de Montgai. Ban on some routes
© Pete O'Donovan, Sep 2008

photo
Raquel Alcayde on Dancing Trip (6b) at Camarasa — total ban pending under proposed...
© Pete O'Donovan, Sep 2008
The climbing is concentrated in an area of about one kilometre, and accessed by a small road, which runs along the north side of the river, dead-ending at the HE plant. Beyond the plant the walls continue on the north side of the gorge for some 5 kilometres, as far as the village of Alòs de Balaguer, but because the river level was artificially raised many years ago, access to the base of the cliffs is impossible, and they've never been developed. In other words, there is a 5 km stretch of gorge with NO climbing. There are also bands of higher, looser, less accessible rock above the main climbing area. And there are literally acres of untouched rock on the sunnier south side of the gorge, again a little loose and of limited interest to the climber (although there are a couple of old mixed/trad routes somewhere up there). But, despite this apparent richness of habitat, the authorities say the birds want to nest on the little bit we climb on and propose to place a year-round ban, not only (they say) for the protection of the birds, but also to promote the growth of the aforementioned plant species.

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!

photo
Dani Andrada on the hardest route at 'Bruixes' — Definición de Resistencia...
© Pete O'Donovan, Sep 2008

photo
Albert Cortés on the superb Cantomania (6c+), a recently equipped route at...
© Pete O'Donovan, Sep 2008
The species highlighted in the proposal are a varied bunch of critters. The two eagles, Golden and Bonelli's are, to be honest, pretty rare sights, though in my experience commoner further south, in the Costa Daurada area (Siurana, Montsant, etc.). The Environment agency says numbers of these two species have declined in La Noguera and Alt Urgell; I'm not in a position to argue with that. Vultures are another matter entirely, certainly as far as Gyps fulvus is concerned. Although officially still classified as 'threatened' in Catalunya, anyone who has recently travelled through the north and west of the region, either by car or on foot, should be able to testify to the fact that these giants of the sky are doing very nicely, thankyou. Earlier this summer, while climbing in the gorge of Oliana, I counted upwards of 30 soaring on the thermals above me, just in one small area (perhaps I was moving too slowly!) as well as many more perched on ledges on nearby walls, and 'flocks' of this size are by no means unusual across the region. In many areas their numbers seem almost inexplicable; how can so many big birds find enough dead animals to survive, let alone thrive? It's not even as if they die young, the oldest reaching 40 years! Apparently, on the French side of the Pyrenees, where these birds are also doing well, farmers used to leave dead livestock out in the fields, thus saving themselves the trouble and expense of disposal, as well as doing the Vultures a favour at the same time, but the practice was outlawed by the EU in 2002 after mad cow disease reared its ugly head. So what do they eat now? Somehow, somewhere, there must be an awful lot of less than sure-footed mountain goats roaming the hillsides. The menu probably also includes the Isard (Spanish Chamois), oh and also wild boar, which apparently are getting way out of control after cross-breeding with domestic pigs and consequently having larger litters. In other words; not a bad time to be a scavenger, particularly one with good eyesight. Red Kites, also appear to be doing very well in the area. Don't get me wrong, I love to see these magnificent creatures, but I fail to see the need to extend them further protection when they look to be managing perfectly well on their own.

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.


photo
The magnificent Paret de les Bruixes at Terradets, facing a year-round ban under the new...
© Pete O'Donovan, Sep 2008

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