Most paragliding in Pembrokeshire takes place around the coast since unauthorised use of the Preseli Hills was banned two years ago.
The boycott was imposed by the National Park Authority in 2011 after protests from the graziers who complained that the paragliders were disturbing the sheep and the ponies grazing on the common land, which is under the control of the National Park authority as the hills are in an enclave of the National Park.
Horse riders, who have trekked in the hills for generations, also complained that the paragliders were spooking the horses and ponies, and trekking was an important element in the tourism economy. The jury is still out on the issue of paragliders versus livestock.
Paragliding is mainly carried out under the experienced control of Pembrokeshire Paragliding, an organisation based next to the medieval Abbey at St Dogmaels, near Cardigan, which has been operating in the area for 12 years. In 2011 they received a 1st Place Gold in the Pembrokeshire Tourism Awards and operate as a BHPA registered school. They offer training through their paraglider courses with tandem flights on which the inexperienced visitor can be taken up by an expert for a bird’s eye view of the coast and countryside. A National Geographic survey carried out a few years ago placed Pembrokeshire joint second in the world as a coastal paragliding venue, ahead of Hawaii, and Pembrokeshire Paragliding defended their use of the hills, saying the ban will hit the tourist industry as their clients come from far distant places to train and enjoy the sport..
Paragliding is for experts, and fatalities have occurred when inexperienced or unaware paragliders have been caught out by unexpected problems or tragic errors of judgment or anticipation. A tragic accident on the Pembrokeshire coast recently underlined the dangers. An unfortunate man sailed into a cliff when the wind changed direction, and, although he survived the initial impact and seemed safe on a cliff ledge, a gust of wind opened the canopy again and dragged him to his death. If he had remained conscious or someone in the know could have reached him in time, the tragedy could have been avoided by ensuring the canopy remained closed.
The wind is fickle and can change direction in an instant, particularly in close proximity to cliffs where eddies and thermals create sudden ‘freak’ effects. There is a tendency to call waves, currents and wind conditions ‘freak’ occurrences when they are in fact perfectly natural and predictable phenomena to people who understand the forces of nature. When visitors get into trouble the experienced locals, particularly the boatmen and fishermen and those who have served in the Coastguard service or the lifeboats, shake their heads solemnly and say it was an accident waiting to happen. In the event of an accident, the advice is to weight down the canopy with rocks or sand to ensure it does not open again, for the power generated by the wind makes it impossible to control.