Deadly predators kill father and son’s sharing of sport

Posted on May 23rd, 2012

A Rosewell resident who has grown up racing pigeons fears for the future of the sport.

Brian Massey has raced pigeons with his father since a child but says this tradition has been ruined by a growing threat.

“Yesterday I lost another one of my baby pigeons to a peregrine – another pigeon fancier actually saw it being carried back to the falcon’s nest” he explained.

He and other local pigeon fanciers say the peregrines on the cliffs at Hawthornden Castle cause great reason for alarm: pedigree pigeons and song birds are diet staples of the peregrine falcon.

Brian Massey is 27 and a member of the Rosewell Homing Pigeon Club. He has been keeping racing pigeons for 15 years.

“This year I am missing 12 of my birds. One recently returned from a race with a slice along her body and lots of feathers missing from her wing.

“This predation problem is ruining our sport – my dad has now decided to stop pigeon racing after 45 years, as he’s had enough.

“We’ve been racing birds together ever since I can remember.”

Brian keeps 60 racing pigeons and explains that there are seven pigeon fanciers with lofts in his village – all experiencing the same problem. He fears the escalating problem could mean the death of not just his birds, but the sport in five years.

He says that peregrines attack by swooping under the pigeon and the victims of these attacks are easy to recognise as they always have the same marks.

“If the peregrine attacks a flock of say 30 pigeons while in their line of flight, they might only catch and kill one or two, but the others could 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.

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

The pigeon fanciers in Rosewell keep around 500 pigeons between them, but Brian estimates about 4000 racing birds in the area to be at risk from the nearby peregrines which are capable of hunting over a 15-mile radius.

He believes that the installation of manmade peregrine nesting sites in cities and towns should be stopped, or at least reduced, to protect the safety of racing pigeons.

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

Brian is desperate for the impact of birds of prey on pigeon racing to be recognised:

“We are extremely attached to our birds. Just like any cat or dog owner would be distraught if their pet was attacked or killed, 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. Sadly, these birds of prey don’t discriminate between feral and racing pigeons.

Brian explained that soaring peregrine falcon numbers in the UK are also having a detrimental effect on the population of other native breeds such as songbirds.

“Its not only peregrines, but also sparrowhawks which continue to attack our birds. Now is the breeding season which means we that we go through a spell of older birds of pretty teaching their young to hunt.

“It isn’t unusual to see five or six of these birds in the air at a time, diving to kill pigeons.”

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.

Rosewell pigeon fanciers say they need to let out their birds for exercise and training regularly – and the growing numbers of both peregrine falcons and sparrowhawks pose a direct threat.

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.

Brian believes the racing pigeon suffers an unjust reputation.

“They are far from being vermin. Feral and racing pigeons are a whole world apart.”

Pigeon racing is a long-standing British tradition; HRH 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 who race their pigeons from April to September, using the winter months for breeding and husbandry.

UK pigeon fanciers have formed the national Raptor Alliance to lobby for change in the protection of their racing birds. Currently, birds owned by the 60,000 pigeon fanciers in the UK have no legal protection against increasing attacks from soaring sparrowhawk and peregrine falcon populations.