A Yorkshireman’s concerns for dying tradition

Posted on August 9th, 2012

A pigeon racing enthusiast in Brighouse fears for the future of his sport after suffering major losses of his birds.

Harry Reid, who has been racing pigeons for over 50 years says the noticeable increase in losses of racing pigeons affecting fellow pigeon fanciers in Yorkshire. Their prize pigeons are being preyed on by wild birds such as peregrine falcons and sparrowhawks.

“There is a pair of peregrines nesting in Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire. It’s very possible that this pair could be picking off our racing pigeons as they return home, as they are located right on the route that we train our birds” commented the 65-year-old.

“As the attacks happen while we’re training pigeons and while they’re in races, it can be difficult to tell which birds are killing our pigeons.

“But we do know that these bird of prey populations are increasing across the UK and as they do, we continue to lose out.”

Harry says that this problem is ruining his sport and that there is nothing pigeon racing enthusiasts can do to protect their pigeons.

The pigeon racing season starts in April and runs through until September. At the start of this year’s season, Harry had 25 old birds (pigeons which have previously raced); he now has 8.

He says that enough is enough and that many fanciers are retiring from the sport due to abnormally high losses of birds.

Harry’s son lives close by and is also a pigeon fancier.

They both explain that the problem they face from birds of prey is not only in their back gardens, but also a national concern. The national picture is that the threat of attacks from birds such as sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons has meant growing numbers of pigeon racing enthusiasts are too frightened to release their racing birds from their lofts.

“Pigeon fanciers need to let out their birds for exercise and training regularly. But it’s just too risky for many.

“Racing pigeons are under threat at both ends of the racing season. In winter time in particular we need to be very guarded because of female sparrowhawks attacking around the loft.

“Then, when the season starts, the peregrine attacks start again.”

Harry believes that the installation of manmade peregrine nesting sites in cities and towns is responsible for this growing problem and should at least be reduced, to protect the safety of racing pigeons.

“These bird of prey populations – particularly the peregrines – aren’t common to such areas.”

He explained:

“Pigeon fanciers are bird lovers – we’re not against birds of prey. We just want their populations to be left alone to breed at a more natural rate. This would really help reduce the threat to our pigeons. Nature should be allowed to take its course.”

In the 1960s, the peregrine falcon was almost extinct in Britain. Killed during the Second World War to stop them preying on messenger pigeons, peregrines then suffered the impact of pesticides. But new levels of protection and restrictions on pesticide have helped the bird of prey to recover.

Peregrines are protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act – however racing pigeons have no legal protection from the increasing threat from birds of prey.

“We are extremely attached to our birds. Any cat or dog owner would be distraught if their pet was attacked or killed and so are we when our pigeons return attacked or worse, dead.

“The scale of the problem here means more of our birds will become a food source. I’m convinced that peregrines particularly prey on racing pigeons rather than feral as they fly in a flock – they’re much easier to target.”

Harry and his son are desperate for the impact of this problem to be recognised. He says the predation problem is devastating the sport, and has been a growing issue for years.

They say that all of the fanciers they know experience bird of prey attacks on their pigeons – and the damage these do extends beyond the killing of the one pigeon attacked.

When a sparrowhawk or peregrine falcon swoops on a flock of pigeons in flight, they might only catch and kill one, but the other birds will often end up damaging of killing themselves in their panic to get away.

“Pigeons will panic and dive into the nearest area to try and escape – which sometimes results in them killing themselves by hitting the ground, trees or a building” Harry explained.

“Racing pigeons are also known to fly many miles in the wrong direction to escape, leading to exhaustion and getting lost.”

A research paper commissioned by the Scottish (pigeon) Homing Union, published in 2000, highlighted that at that time, there were 34,000 breeding pairs of sparrowhawks in the UK. In 2002 the British Trust for Ornithology estimated to be around 1420 breeding pairs of peregrine falcons in the UK.

As the population growth of these birds of prey has shown to be healthy, it is now thought that the above numbers will have increased significantly. If a steady supply of racing pigeons is available, a peregrine will eat an average of 300 in one year.

Many British lives were saved during World War II, thanks to the efforts of pigeons carrying information across enemy lines and concerned pigeon fanciers in the area think these birds deserve to be protected.

Pigeon racing is a long-standing British tradition; The Queen is the patron of the sport and has around 200 racing pigeons in the royal lofts at Sandringham. There are about 60,000 fanciers in the UK, 42,000 of these race their pigeons from April to September, using the winter months for breeding and husbandry. Pigeon racing was formerly an Olympic sport – last recorded at the 1900 games, held in Paris.

UK pigeon fanciers have formed the national Raptor Alliance to lobby for change in the protection of their racing birds. Currently, birds owned by pigeon fanciers in the UK have no legal protection against increasing attacks from soaring sparrowhawk and peregrine falcon populations.

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