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Birds of prey and Racing Pigeons - The Concerns, the facts...
Author: R.P.R.A.Title: Birds of prey and Racing Pigeons - The Concerns, the facts
Date: 2002-10-02 23:18:49Uploaded by: webmaster
Pigeon racing is a British tradition. There are about 60,000 fanciers around the United Kingdom with around 45,000 of those as members of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association. They race their pigeons from April to September with the winter months used for breeding and husbandry. Yet the very roots of this time honoured sport is at risk from a most fearful predator - the raptor.

The Concerns
The concerns of pigeon fanciers, and bird lovers alike, is the lack of control over the number of raptors, namely peregrines and sparrowhawks. Although the numbers of these raptors declined drastically in the 1960s, they have now returned to levels that are causing a very great concern to some bird lovers.

The Facts
Official and authoritative figures give the estimated population of peregrines as 1263 breeding pairs in 1991. For each pair there is at least one immature bird so the total number of peregrines is around 4000. Their primary diet is... racing pigeons.

Sparrowhawk numbers in a 1988-1991 survey was 34,500 breeding pairs or in excess of 90,000 single birds. Professor Ian Newton, an authority on sparrowhawks, states that their diet is 2-3 songbirds a day and when they are not taking songbirds they take racing pigeons. That equates to a daily intake of over 270,000 small birds and pigeons.

The RSPB have stated that the decline in our songbird population is due to a change in farming methods. Whilst that may be true to some extent, the raptor numbers continue to increase and peregrines and sparrowhawks are now regularly seen in urban areas. If the songbirds are disappearing from the countryside in the numbers that the RSPB quote then these raptors must be taking their prey from elsewhere as their numbers are not in decline. We have evidence that sparrowhawks and peregrines take racing pigeons from around the loft and in gardens. In fact there are recorded instances of sparrowhawks actually flying into lofts to take their prey.

Pigeon Fanciers are not the only group to suffer from birds of prey. Langholm Moor was devastated by raptors to such an extent that the grouse moor had to close as a going concern and the jobs of the gamekeepers were put on the line. Pigeon fanciers also leave the sport because financially and emotionally the losses are too great to bear.

We do not discount the fact that many of our racing pigeons are lost for a variety of reasons - the weather, illness, even accidents. Some also turn feral but the fact of the matter is that if a raptor attacks a flock of racing pigeons engaged in a race or around the loft the pigeons will scatter, their homing instincts totally destroyed and they will not return to their loft. Such an attack during a race and the consequential panic amongst the pigeons was captured on film in a recent Channel 4 documentary.

A farmer has the right to protect his sheep from a stray dog. If a fox or rat were to enter a fancier’s loft and destroy his pigeons, he would have a right to defend his property, in this case his pigeons, by killing the attacker. Yet, if a raptor attacks his property in the same way, either actually in his loft or taking pigeons from around it, he has no legal right to protect that property. This is nonsense.

Peregrines are protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981; their removal requires a licence. Sparrowhawks enjoy the same protection as any garden bird such as robins and sparrows, ironically the ones they consume with such gusto.

What is the Answer?
The pigeon fraternity were part of the Government’s Raptor Working Group that reported their findings in Feb 00. We were unconvinced by the report on racing pigeon issues as it was conducted by the Hawk and Owl Trust, hardly an impartial organisation for completing such important work! They suggested:
  • A trial into the use of deterrents. We are funding a £32,000 trial being conducted by Lancaster University into Bali bells, sequins and hawk eyes for example.
  • Research into understanding the causes of straying during racing, especially for young birds. We would welcome research but tracking units would cost in the region of £20,000 each and we would need to seek exterior funding.
  • Delaying the start of the ‘old bird’ racing season in order to avoid the current coincidence with the start of the peregrine’s breeding season. Should we adhere to this recommendation then the peregrine population in particular would be widely hit. The implementation of this would see the end of old bird racing and have a major impact on young bird racing. The old bird season commences in early April but the training period for both age ranges of racing pigeons involves them flying out from early March in order to prepare them for the coming season.
  • That consideration be given to re­organising race routes, especially for young bird racing, in an attempt to establish ‘flight corridors’ and reduce the current complexity of north/south and east/west ‘crossovers’. We have always tried to fly in corridors; however, flying down the East Coast is no good to a fancier in Midlands.

The Way Forward
We are keen to work with the bird protectionists but not if the sole answer is always to protect and enhance the raptors. There are wider issues such as the siting of peregrines in urban areas in what is clearly unnatural habitat. A fancier should also have the right to protect his birds if a predator enters the loft or immediate surrounding area. We will continue to lobby for a fairer solution to the raptor problem.

Used with permisson. © RPRA.

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