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Protecting seabirds at Bempton Cliffs
Jo Makel
By Jo Makel

The collecting of sea birds eggs was a centuries' old tradition.

It may seem unacceptable to us now. But it certainly wasn't the worst thing that happened at Bempton.

Back in the 1850s something quite devastating took place. Shooting parties were brought in on boats from towns like Bridlington.

And the sea birds were their target.

"It was just on a massive scale. It was just like the wholesale slaughter of them. They were killing thousands of them," said Ian Kendall, site manager for the RSPB at Bempton.

"It was something that attracted people from all over the country to see this phenomenal spectacle of birds being disturbed and shot."

Ian Kendall
Ian Kendall: The RSPB site manager at Bempton

Some of the birds were being shot to serve a growing fashion trend. Local historian Mike Wilson knows of a factory in Bridlington which used the feathers.

Mike said: "There was a factory run by a Mr Barclay. He used to go out with his boat and shoot the Kittiwakes, wash the feathers and everything with petrol and then put plaster of Paris on them.

Then they shipped them off to factories in London to go on ladies hats. You weren't a lady unless you had a proper seagull on your hat."

But for other guns below the cliffs this was simply sport. The national press blamed the locals. It was seen as Yorkshire's shame. But Mike Wilson says this was also about economics.

"The local people would see it as a Godsend," he said. "Parties arrived looking for men with boats to go out sailing these people would probably pay cash to go now. They'd take their money and go because they had big families they needed the money".

MIke Wilson
Bridlington historian Mike Wilson

In the end it was local people who took an important stand against the shooters. At Priory Church in Bridlington, in the 1860s, the vicar became deeply concerned about what was happening up the coast at Bempton and Flamborough. Not just because of the damage to the sea birds, but the damage to people's reputations.

The Reverend Henry Barnes-Lawrence gathered the support of other local clergy and landowners to set up the Association for the Protection of SeaBirds.

Hull's History Centre still holds a collections of some of the association's letters and pamphlets. They argue against the shooting from a moral point of view.

One of the pamphlets reads: "The commonest dictates of humanity require that the parental instinct of every living thing which is not noxious to man should be respected. ..The moral feeling of sympathy has been blunted."

The association also argued that the birds were needed. During foggy weather, their cries warned fishermen of the cliffs. They also helped rid farmers of pests.

And its lobbying brought about the very first piece of law protecting wild birds, the 1869 Seabirds Preservation Act.

Numbers of seabirds have increased since the shooting ban

It was a turning point. Attitudes to wild birds were slowly changing. And, although for decades the climmers' actions were thought to be sustainable, eventually in 1954 they too were forced to stop.

And since that time the numbers of birds at Bempton has grown.

The RSPB's Ian Kendall said: " It's difficult for us to say exactly what impact it had. But since the 1950s the numbers of Guillemots and razorbills have increased and in fact doubled. There was something going on. We're not saying it was climming. But we're still seeing increases in Guillemot numbers now."

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