Deadly predators threaten wheelchair user’s sport

Posted on June 22nd, 2012

A disabled pigeon racing enthusiast in Weymouth has spoken out about his concerns for the future of his favourite sport.

Chris Williams has raced pigeons with his father since he was 12 but says this has been ruined by a growing threat.

He and other local pigeon fanciers say sparrowhawks in Dorset cause great reason for alarm: pedigree pigeons and song birds are staples of its diet.

Chris is 22 and a member of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association and shares his love of the sport with his father. He races his pigeons in his local pigeon club the Weymouth Homing Society, which has been running for over 50 years.

“Over the last two years I have lost count of the number of my pigeons I have lost to birds of prey.

“I’ve had to witness first hand the brutal killings and injuries inflicted on my birds, which leave me feeling both upset and angry.

“When a female sparrowhawk attacked some of my birds, leaving them shell shocked and unable to fly I was left with no option but to kill them. I was heart broken.”

Chris says that this predation problem is ruining his sport – which only became accessible to wheelchair users relatively recently, thanks to the introduction of systems which clock the return of the pigeons to their lofts electronically.

“This advance to the sport undoubtedly afforded me greater independence – it means that I can now really participate in and enjoy the sport – and compete against my dad properly, as I no longer require his assistance.

“The emotional and financial impact these hawk attacks are having is so frustrating. There’s currently nothing we can do to protect our own birds from them.”

Chris keeps 30 racing pigeons and explains that there are about 70 pigeon fanciers with lofts in his local area – all experiencing the same problem. He fears the escalating issue could mean the death of not just his birds, but eventually, the sport of pigeon racing.

He says that the damage birds of prey do to pigeons extend beyond the killing of the one bird attacked.

“If a sparrowhawk swoops on a flock of say 30 pigeons while in their line of 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.

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

Chris 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 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.”

He 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. These birds of prey don’t discriminate between feral and racing pigeons.

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

“In many areas of the UK peregrine falcons also pose a major threat to racing pigeons”

“Pigeon fanciers need to let out their birds for exercise and training regularly. But many are not just too frightened to, after suffering so many attacks.

“There are peregine nests on Portland Bill, just a short distance from my home and pigeon loft; there are also many sparrowhawk nesting sites in and around Weymouth and Dorchester.”

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.

Chris 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, 42,000 of these 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 pigeon fanciers in the UK have no legal protection against increasing attacks from soaring sparrowhawk and peregrine falcon populations.

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