Tag Archives: Leeds University

South Africa and Bristol MA Wildlife Filmmaking

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This last week has truly been one of the most exhilarating, emotional and thrilling times of my life…I will be visiting South Africa this Summer, AND have been offered a place on the incredible Masters course in Wildlife Filmmaking at Bristol, in partnership with the BBC! I literally wept with happiness, joy and relief when receiving the news on Tuesday…literally just had the interview two weeks previously at the University, and everything I have worked for these past 6 years has been worth it. I am truly grateful for both amazing opportunities.

Thank you to all my friends and family for their endless and continual support, as well as belief in me to pursue my dreams. This feels like this is the beginning of some very exciting adventures, and can’t wait to find out what excitement, hard work and challenges lie ahead!

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Hopefully you can join me on this journey and that I can inspire you to feel passionately about the natural world around us, and more importantly preserve it for future generations. It is our duty as filmmakers to protect the stunning and awe-inspiring places we visit and continue to tell the fascinating stories that unravel on a daily basis on this beautiful blue planet of ours.

UWESince I was very young, the remarkable literature talents of Lauren St John, David Alric, Michael Morpurgo and of course all of my history/biology/geography reference books provided me with an escape and world of wonder and curiosity about the natural world. I could travel the world from my bed, chair, rock, beach towel… and one place, always so vividly represented in all the books I read, was South Africa. Its rich culture, bright colours, sublime smells and majestic animals- and I yearned to visit one day. BBC documentaries and the mild attempts of the Spanish equivalent further gave me the impetus to one day visit this staggeringly beautiful country, and this I finally decided that THIS WAS IT! I’m going to SA this year after I graduate to have the experience of a lifetime.

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This is it! I am going to volunteer at the South African Animal Sanctuary Alliance, Plettenberg Bay and work as a multilingual tour guide (sounds posher than it is)and photographer/filmmaker intern. Each of the sanctuaries under SASAA include Monkeyland, Birds of Eden and Jukani wildlife, which fund themselves through revenues from tourists who take educational tours of the sanctuaries to continue to bring in funds.

Monkeyland

A detailed catalogue of all the SAASA species has not yet been made of the primates, birds and apex cats, and so compiling this information, along with taking photographs and film footage (for YouTube) of individual primates is an important part of the project. They do great work here and I am honoured to be a part of it, and help out in any way that I can.

jukani-wildlife-sanctuary

SO this will be my ‘job’ from June 2th till August 2nd! I’ll be writing regular updates on what I get up to, and how practical it is for YOU to VOLUNTEER for CHEAP ABROAD, it took me many hours to research ethical, well respected places that treat their animals well and don’t actually charge you to volunteer. The only cost involved is the homestay at Rock Road Backpackers (contact Mac: info@wwisa.co.za) which again is AMAZINGLY priced at £18 a night, FOOD, ACCOMODATION, TRAVEL to and from the sanctuaries included. Total cost for 36 days will be around £1600, but I’ve applied for £500 funding from the Leeds for Life Foundation, fingers crossed! Still an amazing prices considering.

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They are SO lovely there, I’m feeling really confident about heading over now as they seem to be very experienced in receiving students. Currently taking my vaccinations now (ouch tetanus hurts!), which are all covered by the NHS, but be warnerd, rabies is £40 a shot! It is necessary though, especially since I’ll be working with primates, (and an odd bat or two if I get the chance).

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I really want to be able to make a difference at the SAASA (South African Sanctuary Alliance) by bringing my skills as a photographer/videographer/zoologist and researcher, as well as help to build up a collection of all the species and individuals at the sanctuary. Having studied zoology at the University of Leeds for 3 years now, I feel the need to travel and experience different cultures, sights and wildlife encounters before I go on to study for my Master this coming September. Not only do I feel I would grow as a person, but also gain further insight and build upon my current portfolio which will prove to be very useful when applying for jobs as a freelance camera woman. It has always been a life-long ambition to visit South Africa, I missed out on an opportunity field trip last summer due to my research project that was to be conducted in the UK on bat foraging distributions. There’s so many amazing activities to get up to there too, canyoning, scuba diving, sky diving, caving, whale watching and I’ll also be going to the world renewed Addo National Park with students from Washington University!

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One day..one step closer…

SO! I’m currently studying for my exam finals now, and can’t stop thinking how lucky I am. I mean, I have worked really hard to get to where I am…and it’s not been easy by any measure. These past three years a Leeds have been a rollercoaster of emotions- but cannot recommend going highly enough. University teaches you more than simply lectures and how to avoid drunk people! But it allows you to find yourself, your purpose, your dreams, what your capable of and most of all determined to, no matter what, follow your dreams and CREATE YOUR OWN LUCK too.

https://youtu.be/KnmdUn3qQeI

Major threats facing keystone species and the consequences for biodiversity

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Tania R.E –Esteban 1

School of Biology, Faculty of Biological science, University of Leeds, UK, LS2 9JT

 

The global threats facing keystone species is significantly impacting levels of biodiversity, due to the disproportionate effects keystones have on entire communities. They influence trophic interactions and provide ecosystem services of vital importance to the economic, social and cultural well-being of humans. It is therefore in our interest to establish the threats, the individuals most at risk, the potential cascading effects on ecosystems and how we are to manage them successfully in terms of reintroduction or mitigation. In this essay I review the major threats to a variety of different keystone species (at all trophic levels), examine how this influences levels of biodiversity and what effects they have on entire ecosystems. I also evaluate the current and potential management strategies that facilitate networks and allow them to be more resilient to future environmental change. Our knowledge of the concepts that underpin the fundamental basis of ecology can help us confront this as one of the greatest challenges in ecology.

Concept of Keystones

In different ecosystems, each specie plays a role within a community and can influence levels of biodiversity. However, the relative impact of each species can vary in terms of importance [27]. Such species that have disproportionate effects on ecosystems are known as keystone species [39]. According to network theory, keystones are intimately linked via ecological networks of highly connected and complex webs (Box 1, [9]). These include species at different trophic levels. Apex predators exert top-down effect on these levels, known as trophic cascades; whereby these strongly connected species indirectly influence community structure and ecosystem function [37]. The robustness of food webs to species removals varies, depending on the species and ecosystem type, where certain removals have greater impacts on ecosystem functioning and structure. Many apex predators are classed as keystone species because of the secondary extinction impacts of their removal on other species [7]. Predators directly impact upon herbivore numbers as well as indirectly through risk effects [34]. This then influences the relative abundance of producers- hence a ‘cascading effect.’

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Equally, predators sustain levels of biodiversity via the suppression of other competitors (mesopredators) through competitive exclusion, and allow other species to co-exist [20]. Predatory release occurs when the apex predator is removed, increasing populations of the less competitive mesopredator. This then leads to a decline in its prey. Predator-prey dynamics as well as competition between intra and interspecific species also influence the structure of the food webs [1, 27]. The length of food webs can also greatly influence the direction of the cascade according to the exploitation ecosystem hypothesis [11]. These natural processes can be perturbed by threats to apex predators- whereby the removal of such keystone species leads to the concept of trophic downgrading [10]. As well as this, there is an alternate stable; where ecosystems are disturbed to such an extent that the cascade shifts from its prior state to another- when a tipping point is reached [10].

Box 1- Network theory

The fragile nature of ecosystems has been explored by Sole and Montoya [36], on the basis that if the nodes that connect individuals are randomly removed in a network, it remains stable. However, when highly connected individual are removed, this results in cascading effects and interference throughout the rest of the network. These keystone individuals form the framework and structure of the network. In real ecological networks, strong evidence for the removal of predators are known to not only directly impact its prey, but also have indirect effects via top-down forcing. Ecosystems processes such as primary production, nitrogen cycling and the establishment of invasive species are also affected (Figure 3 [10]).

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Keystones – threats to a complex web of interactions

Habitat destruction

There have been major declines in biodiversity within recent decades, in what has been described as the 6th mass extinction event [27]. The threats facing keystones and the ecosystem services they provide are predominantly anthropogenic [19], and habitat loss is arguably one of the greatest [15]. For example, the Yellow and Black-Casqued Hornbills are both in decline, which has been correlated with deforestation in Nigeria as well as forest sections along the Ivory Coast [28]. This is problematic in that the genera Ceratogyma are key seed dispersers of fruiting trees, and play an important role in maintaining the heterogeneity of forests and species diversity via gene flow [28]. Because of the large spatial distribution of their territories [45], up to 22% of lowland tropical rainforest species are dispersed by the 3 hornbill species within this genera [23]. Cultural ecosystem services include traditional ceremony wear as well as other benefits to the keystone tree species, Ficus, which in turn provides economic services to local tribes’ people. It is also an important food source for other species within the ecosystem [23].

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Urbanization

Other threats to keystones include the urbanization of many habitats. Increased contact between humans and species drive them to exhibit behavioural plasticity and alter their behaviour [33]. A majority of studies indicate that increases in urban environments decreases species richness [35], due to disturbances in breeding patterns, anti-predator behaviour, fitness, selection of habitat and overall population size. This has cascading effects along trophic levels [2]. The black-tailed prairie dog, a keystone specie, contributes to the health of steppe habitats by mixing the soil. This increases plant productivity and landscape heterogeneity as well as providing coyotes with a food source [3]. Their overall numbers have decreased as a result of increased urbanization. However, in contrary to the risk-disturbance hypothesis, where increases in anti-predatory behaviours (such as vigilance) are seen, some populations exhibiting behavioural plasticity have reduced their vigilance due to habituation [12]. This has negatively impacted the vegetation due to increased foraging time, which has ‘rebounding’ effects back up the trophic cascade, on other herbivores and predators [33].

Climate change

Complex plant-pollinator webs are also disturbed by habitat destruction due to their sensitivity to perturbation [29]. This is the case with the keystone plant mutualist, Heliconia tortuosa,

Figure 1. The warming trend set to continue: (Left) Projected increases in temperature by 2081-2100 if mitigation and use of renewable resources is adopted. (Right) These are the predictions if the business as usual strategy continues (source: IPCC, Fifth assessment, 2014).

IPCC

which supports a variety of hummingbird species, and is considered a central node in this web interaction [17]. Recent work has provided evidence for the fragmentation hypothesis, where forest composition is fundamental to the reproduction of H. tortuosa. Thus, the reduction in heterogeneous landscapes due to deforestation is thought to alter both plant distribution and pollinator behaviour, leading to declines in both populations [29]. Equally, other systems have also shown that deforestation alters pollinator behaviour. Phaethornis hummingbirds will take longer flight paths to avoid deforest patches and agricultural landscapes, decreasing pollinator efficiency. This affects the survival of plant species dependent on this mutually beneficial ecological interaction- and has led to regional declines in biodiversity [16].

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Climate change also poses a major threat to the biodiversity of keystone pollinators (such as bats, bees and birds [19]). One third of the world’s crop production is met by the ecosystem services provided by insect pollinators [30], with agricultural pollinator services estimate to be worth £120 billion per acre, annually [40]. Phenological shifts are also increasingly being observed, with the impact evident in both pollinator and plant keystone species [4]. In Japan, seed production in Corydalis ambigua and Gagea lutea decreased due to the warmer temperatures causing them to bloom earlier, resulting in phenological mismatching with its key pollinator, Apis Mellifera. Consequently, this reduced pollination efficiency and success [31]. Climate change has also altered bee distributions and caused phenological shifts in their flight period. Predictions suggest that the spatial shifts in bee movements will be faster than that of its food resource, also causing phenological mismatching and decrease wildflower pollination [4]. Therefore, climate change poses not only a threat to the keystone plant-pollinators, but to other communities dependent on wildflower meadow species [31]. This highlights the fragility of these mutualistic interactions as key nodes in an ecosystem, due to their varying response to temperature change.

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A major issue with climate change is predicting the influence it will have on biological communities in the future [13]. The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is an apex predator in the Arctic ecosystem which is very sensitive to changes in sea ice cover, where it hunts, migrates and reproduces [25]. The rate of temperature increase in the Arctic and northern regions have doubled in recent years, reducing sea ice cover [24]. In particular, over the past 30 years, the Western Hudson Bay has seen earlier ice break up as well as reduced snow fall (Figure 2). The impact on ringed seals (a keystone specie) with longer ice-free summers has subsequently lead to changes in polar bear behaviour [25]. The continuity of this pattern threatens seal pup survival as they are forced to swim for longer periods of time in open water, exposing them to predation [13]. Ringed seals provide polar bears with net wet weight calorific gains of 2.2-5.3 kcal/g [43], and the decreased recruitment of ringed seals has driven polar bears to target nesting birds, as they are unable to gain sufficient energy [25]. This warming trend is set to continue with possible increases in temperature of 5.0-6.4˚C by 2081-2100 (Figure 1, [24]).

Figure 2: Sea ice extent between 1979-2012 throughout the summer months. Evident loss seen annually. (Source: Iverson [25]).

Hunting and over-exploitation

Hunting and over exploitation is also a prevalent threat to many keystones worldwide. The removal of a keystone predator is a major cause of secondary extinctions, demonstrating the strong influence of top-down effects on lower trophic levels [10]. This was seen with the expatriation of the Grey wolf in Yellowstone during 1935 (due to hunting), which increased populations of elk as a result of predatory release [39]. Increased levels of browsing on aspen, cotton and willow saplings in riparian river systems led to a more homogenous landscape and reduced diversity [34]. The wolf played a vital ecosystem role by maintaining diversity as well as healthy numbers of mesopredator populations. Classic studies of the consequences of predator removal are also illustrated with sea otters [10]. Enhydra lutris was nearly hunted to extinction by Russian fur traders at the beginning of the 20th century, resulting in the predatory release of sea urchins, which reduced Kelp forests by intensively over-browsing [42]. However, with the return of the otter during the 1970’s to certain areas, the recovery of the kelp forests was observed due to the effects of top-down control on urchins. The kelp populations in regions where otters were unable to recolonize did not recover [11], demonstrating how the impact of hunting can alter and result in the simplification of food webs.

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The general pattern of global declines in apex predators is a cause for concern, due their strong connectedness in ecosystems and influence in altering the stability of food webs [19]. This is less well studied in marine ecosystems [20]. For example, sharks are apex predators in marine ecosystems [22], and are threatened by hunting. Demand for shark fin during the 90’s increased mortality rates by 80%. Many debate the function of sharks as keystone predators [8], however more recent studies suggest that although not all shark species can be described as keystones, some are key in structuring some ecosystems [44]. Indeed, strong arguments made by Estes et al., [10] concluded that the top-down effects exerted by apex predators are equally as influential as bottom-up effects. In Western Australia, Tiger sharks are considered a keystone apex predator; as mesopredator diversity (dolphins) and herbivores (dugongs) abundance are indirectly affected by the “seascape of risk,” as well as by direct predation [20]. 15 years of data collection in Shark Bay has supported the idea that the non-predatory effects of top apex consumers (predator keystones), play a pivotal role in influencing ecosystems [10]. Thus shark declines are affecting mesopredator numbers and behaviour, with unknown consequences on the rest of the aquatic communities [44].

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Clearly, hunting apex predators can have detrimental, aggregating effects on lower trophic levels, both directly (via predation) or indirectly (through the landscape/seascape of fear concept). Equally, the idea that keystone’s play a role within and across communities [27], was seen with the decline of sea otters in the Aleutian archipelago populations due to increased predation by Orca [42]. The overexploitation of fish stocks in these waters in turn reduced populations of pinniped that fed on them [11]. This altered the orcas behaviour which began targeting otters as an alternative food source. Kelp forests once again declined as urchins were free of predation. This is known as the exploitation ecosystems hypothesis, where the food-chain length determines the level of influence and control top-down or bottom-up systems have in the primary productivity of ecosystems [10, 11].

Great White Shark

Future: Management, mitigation and reintroduction

Problems

In terms of keystone species, the challenges of managing and mitigating their decline arise due to the complexity and interconnectedness between the many species they affect within ecological communities [5]. For example, managing the declines of seed dispersers is hard due to the large spatial ranges of their territories and difficulty in quantifying dispersal rates [23]. The extent to which urban-adapted keystones will affect the rest of the community depends on their ability exhibit behavioural plasticity and adapt, which varies between species and landscape scale [35].

The threat of climate change is also difficult to predict, thus is hard to prevent plant-pollinator loss in the future as phenological shifts continue at different rates [4]. Similarly, the uncertainty surrounding model projections of sea ice loss threatens the future survival of many Arctic species [25]. In aquatic systems, the lack of protection out of marine conservation areas and the extensive movements of keystone predators such as sharks, creates problems in managing and mitigating their decline [21, 22].

Equally, the overall concept of what constitutes a keystone species provides difficulties in management [7]. The definition can be broadly used to describe a spectrum of keystone types, which is confusing and problematic for conservation policy [7]. With an increasing number of species being given ‘keystone status,’ the lack of consistency in defining them more scientifically is rapidly becoming a challenge in itself [27].

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Identification of which trophic direction is most influential in affecting levels of biodiversity within communities is controversial [10]. Often, it is dependent upon the ecosystem as well as the keystone specie. Some argue that primary production controls ecosystems bottom-up [18]. Others believe predatory top-down control is more influential, and is currently gaining more support due to the mounting evidence that global predator declines have significant impacts on communities and ecosystem processes (Figure 3, [10]). However, even if top-down systems were recognisably more important in structuring ecosystems, it is hard to determine the most prevalent impact predators have in influencing interactions within food webs- directly (through predation/lethal) or indirectly (risk effects/non-lethal [34]).

Figure 3: Indirect impacts of apex predators on different ecosystem function and processes (Source: Estes et al [10]).

Indeed, this is the case with sharks, where the importance of risk effects might be underestimated [26]. In terrestrial ecosystems, the ‘landscape of fear’ as well as direct predation by wolves is being taken into account in studies of natural systems, (eg: Białowieża Forest, Poland) in order to consider the nonlethal effects on herbivores [32]. Proposals by Manning et al., [34] suggest that controlled experiments in the Scottish highlands would provide much needed data and viable evidence for their reintroduction. However, public opinion is often divided in terms of reintroductions [37], and the funding and costs of trial experimentation are deemed wasteful [32].

The nature of predicting ecosystem response with the removal of a keystone is also very difficult when taken from a stable environment- where prior knowledge of the response in unknown [36]. Only a few studies have examples of networks that are partially mapped [5], and the substantial lack of data on a range of ecosystems makes management difficult [36]. Much earlier research does not indicate the strength of each trophic link, thus it is difficult to compare to the current consistent and empirically accurate data. Even when disrupted, other factors such as intraspecific competition can alter the response, and may take many years for the effects to propagate in the ecosystem [10]. Current strategies by the US Endangered Species Act fail to incorporate this [41].

Possible solutions?

It is vital that scientists are able to quantitatively asses the relative contribution of each proposed keystone [36]. Only then can policy makers implement management strategies that target and focus on protecting species that have the most important functional role- rather than the rarest specie [27]. We must also therefore demonstrate their functional importance before policy-makers act on the impetus of the analogical term of a keystone [7]. Of equal importance is understanding the connectivity of networks as well as attempting to mitigate the threats facing keystone apex predators. The geographic spatial scales at which natural or previously manipulated experimental removal experiments varies enormously, thus must also be considered in future reintroductions and management plans [39].

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As already established, complex ecological concepts are hard to manage as many factors feed into the function, stability and persistence of food webs; including biotic and abiotic factors [10]. It is clear how important abiotic interactions greatly influence ecosystems and community structure and function, and must be considered if we are to manage and mitigate the effects of current and future climate change [19]. Therefore, as the fifth assessment by the IPCC suggests, anthropogenic climate change policy should focus on mitigation by following resilience pathways and realising adaption measures towards a more sustainable future [24]. If we are to reduce the number of extinctions, policy must also address the source of the problem; fossil fuel consumption, to mitigate the severe effects it could have on vulnerable keystones and their habitat [24].

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Other concepts such as network theory have helped explain how the systematic targeting of particular keystone individuals is far more destructive than random removal [36]. Therefore fisheries must implement this into their harvesting methods and reduce their impact on sharks by implementing annual moratoriums to prevent over harvesting. This will require international cooperation to account for the spatial movements of these keystone predators [44].

Conclusion

The threats facing keystone species may arguably have the greatest impact upon ecosystem function and stability globally [10]. Keystone predators in particular play an important role as their loss is a cause of many secondary extinctions [21]. The complexity of these networks cannot be undermined, and scientists must now be able to predict and further assess why certain keystone species are more robust or more at risk from collapsing early on than others. This will determine which species will have the greatest impact upon the stability and function of communities [46]. Additionally, completion of fully described networks will need to be of a multidisciplinary manner, in order to expand upon the current knowledge of these systems. Mitigating the threats as well as assessing the success of keystone reintroductions in influence levels of biodiversity is also key [44]. The reduction of harmful human activities is also necessary in order to prevent future extinctions and declines in biodiversity [24]. Ultimately, the solutions to the challenges facing keystones and ecosystem function are not simple. However, further knowledge of how these systems work and the implementation of efficacious management strategies will lead more efficient restoration and protection.

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Almscliff Adventures: Begginners guide to Rock Climbing

 Almscliff crag walk

Almscliff Crag is located between the verdant green sloping hills of Harrogate and the bustling city of Leeds, and protrudes on top of a small hill. Made of Millstone grit, it optimizes the hardiness of the great Yorkshire people- tough and gritty is most certainly the way up North! It was formed out of the destruction of the surrounding softer and more fragile shale and mudstone strata, which left this hardier famous landmark which is extremely popular with walkers and climbers alike. I headed up with the Leeds University Mountaineering society (Climbing) to try out my first outdoor climb, having had several indoor and seemingly difficult routes indoors at the Depot (Pudsey) and The Edge (Leeds). I could only really manage the Blues and Black holds at that point, so wasn’t too sure what to expect on an outdoor trip! But I was rearing to go and try it out.

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Beautiful views of Otley and the Chevin from the top of the Almscliff crag.

Ed and Dan were my teachers and were incredibly patient with my incompetent movements that resembled a seagull with broken wings that had been coated with tar… rather flailing!

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But you learn fast, it literally is a steep learning curve, with all the different names for pieces of kit, it can be a bit overwhelming! Firstly, rock climbing involves two people or a small group including the use of ropes which can either be done indoors at a local climbing centre OR outdoors. Other types of climbing without ropes involves bouldering where crash mats are places strategically in order to prevent any accidents. This is usually done in indoor centres without rope as the crash mats provide sufficient padding to cushion a fall whilst you build up your strength and stamina, to prepare you for an outdoor climb. You can use ropes indoors where another person is strapped into a harness and tied up whilst one person belays you- basically pulling up the slack rope as you climb ever higher and ready to catch you if you slip and fall. The different types of climbing are:

# 1 Traditional (or trad if you want to sound cool and mingle with climbers, ALWAYS use colloquial language to get in with the climbers!). This is where one climber will “lead” up along the rock face and place in all the bolts, cams and screws through which the rope will be placed through. This not only keeps the lead and first climber safe but allows the second climber to follow. Then at the top an anchor is built and three ropes are attached with into the rock with hexes (you will see why, they resemble hexagonal metal pieces) and then attach yourself to them by the rope with a special type of knot know as a clove hitch. The second climber will follow up after the first has yelled “OFF BELAY, FREE TO CLIMB” and they have secured the ropes up at the top. The second climber will also remove the gear as they progress.

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(Left) Your nuts, bolts, cams and clip ons to keep you safe! All of this should be provided with your climbing society. (Bottom) Nick Belaying Fergus, (Bottom Right) Nick being lowered by the belayer, Ed who is at the top.

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# 2 Sport climbing is where climbers clip onto already placed bolts that are securely fixed into the rock for people to ascend. This is the much easier and quick way to climb, but not as exciting as leading a climb.

#3 Soloing is where climbers will ascend under their own steam without any rope and by themselves, DON’T TRY THIS FIRST!! It can be very risky going it alone, so make sure you have many months of experience before you try this out. Ed, (see below) has done this for years and so is experienced enough to know the risks.

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Ed soloing it up the Chimney

#3 Ice climbing involves, as the name suggests, ice or snow with use of particular equipment such as ice picks (who doesn’t want those awesome looking pick axes?) as well as crampons, boots, thermals, rope and harness. This isn’t for the faint hearted, not only are the cold conditions tough, but the technique is better off perfected indoors before you go out there, but it looks beautiful.

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# 4 Competition climbing is more competitive climbing primarily done indoors in climbing walls, check out these amazing videos of insanely good comp climbers!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Qk-lNsRtwQ

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# 5 Bouldering is as I mentioned earlier without ropes, and is frequently performed indoors with different coloured holds which indicates their level of difficulty. Hand Jamming, crimps are all part of the technical lingo…watch out for the Climbers chat guide coming soon!

IMG_5325Here is Fergus Bouldering up Manhorn…quite a long way down so crash mats were used! I was going to do this but then again….

Here are the essential basics to Traditional climbing:

#1: Belay Kit– can be bought in many outdoor stores, I personally bought mine at GO Outdoors as you can get a £5 discount card which will save you a whole load, and my gorgeous black and orange harness as well as purple screw gate (to clip rope through) and orange belay device (where the climbers rope is threaded through and to control the climbers ascent/descent). This will usually set you back £50 with all of the above and a chalk bag for when you get sweaty palms! If you have a bit more cash to splash, you could probably get a harness for £46 alone then buy the rest of the gear separately. Check this Climbex one similar to the one I got on Go Outdoors.co.uk:

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http://www.gooutdoors.co.uk/climb-x-pilot-harness-set-p194186

#2 Climbing shoes- I can’t stress how IMPORTANT SHOES are… always get a size above your normal shoes size, as they can be quite tight! It is supposed to be just uncomfortable so that you can really grip the rock face and have the friction to push up against gravity and the wall. Also you want them to be super comfy!

http://www.gooutdoors.co.uk/climb-x-crux-climbing-shoe-p194484

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#3 Chalk– is placed into you bag and attached to the back of your harness, used to stop those sweaty palms of yours when you’re up high from sweating up and losing grip!

The cheapest and best way to start climbing is to join your local university club and pay the membership there: your covered for insurance purposes and can borrow all the gear for a small £30 a year…think how much you will be saving if you don’t have to buy all that rope, harness, shoes, cams, nuts, clip ons, ect!

It’s also a great way to make friends and get shown how to climb with a good technique. Most members would have been doing this sport for some time and are experienced. So don’t splash your cash on all these fancy pancy climbing courses all the time- although I learnt how to belay at the edge for £25, I could have learnt the exact same thing with the climbing society showing me. I did my first outdoor climb with them too.

IMG_0640Me checking out my harness, belay device and screw gate.

So back to Almscliff! Classic climbs include the Chimney which is categoriesd as very difficult and Wall of Horrors. But as a beginner I would highly recommend doing Stewpot and Easy man– I am seen here doing Stewpot, which I also led a climb for. The rock is lovely and firm here which is reassuring, but it really makes you move your body in a way that makes you a more cautious and perceptive person. You need to be aware of where you’re placing your feet at all times…if you get a bad foothold then finding an equally dodgy handhold is of no significance.

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TRUST in your strong powerful legs and push up always from them and straighten your body right from your feet, all the way through your legs, through your core and UP you go! Onto the next hand hold. I must say, when I first started climbing, I had my doubts whether or not I could do it. My arms are like spindly gibbon arms, not much muscle at all! My legs are strong with all the cardio I do, and I was assured that it’s your LEGS that are the key to climbing. Whilst climbing Stewpot, in one of the cracks my friend shouted out that he saw a bat! I had to come up as I must say I didn’t initially believe him! But indeed there was a small wrinkled up Pipestrelle, sat snuggly between the cracks. We wondered if he was dead but he stirred as soon as we took a photo of him. Hope he was alright. You need a special license to handle them so it’s best that we left it alone. One then route had been led for me and it was safe for me to climb, I tied up my harness and headed up.

It was a gorgeous warm and sunny day. 25ᵒC-perfect for climbing the warm baked rocks of Almscliff crag. The scenery is truly spectacular up there. You can see why it’s a popular haunt with climbers, ramblers, boulderers, painters and walkers. Prior to joining the group, on my way up from the side car park, I wandered the crag to get a couple of panorama shots, and found a whole host of insect wildlife there. Swallows dart up and down catching their ready packed meals that are equally agile and astute on the wing- talk about fast food!

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My climbing friends tried the much harder Chimney, and Nick and Fergus gritted their teeth, and push and pulled harder to get to the top after attempts to get past the notoriously difficult mid slab of millstone rock- gravity ALWAYS wins. Funnily enough as I am writing this I just watched the film Gravity last night, brilliantly composed and shot, but a rather pessimistic film! Its unnerving to see your climbing buddies take a fall, even when attached to rope that can take the weight of a ton. We shout out support down at the bottom to help spur them on.

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The sun was beginning to slide further down the clouds, providing the perfect opportunity for me to get a silhouetted head shot and create a double exposure- check it out!I was very happy with the results after a tinkle on Photoshop CS3, I will be posting up a video tutorial on how to do it shortly. I hereby name it “Fergus and the Ferns!” after the plant I used to create it and the guy posing for it!

fergus tree copy before crop

After a long and gorgeous afternoon of climbing and photography, it couldn’t have ended more perfectly. I OFFICIALLY have the climbers bug, despite the climbers calluses and cramps in your toes after wearing the tiny shoes, climbing really makes you feel alive and brings out the best in your abilities- it MAKES you have to believe and trust in your judgment and work as a team to help them through the climb.

“Nothing beats that feeling when you get your hand at the top of that rock…”

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