Welsh pigeon fanciers speak out on bird of prey attacks

Two pigeon fanciers who say the future of their sport is under threat from birds of prey have spoken out about the problem.

They report their racing pigeons being under constant attack from a growing population of wild birds once only common in more rural areas:  namely, sparrowhawks, peregrine falcons and goshawks.

Dennis Ellis who lives in Merthyr Tydfil has three pigeon lofts in his back garden and says his birds are not only attacked in the air. He has recently witnessed bird of prey attacks on the pigeons while in their loft.

He said:  “One morning I got up and heard a banging noise from the lofts – it was so loud I thought it must have been a cat.  But when I went to investigate, I was surprised to find a goshawk in with them.

“It flew off when I arrived.  It had caused havoc:  I found two of my pigeons dead and several half eaten – one had even had its wings taken off. It was awful, I’m breaking up thinking about it.”

Dennis is 60-years-old and has been racing pigeons since he was five.

He says that this problem with birds of prey has been the case for several years now, and continues to get worse.

Dennis is the secretary of Merthyr Homing Society pigeon racing club and reports all of its members as suffering the same problem.

He worries that these bird attacks will not only mean the death of more of his pigeons, but also the sport in Wales.

“This is putting people right off getting into pigeon racing.

“Within a five-mile radius from here there must be about 12 peregrines.  They are coming out of their natural territory.

“One peregrine just sits on the pylon next to the house and watches the lofts.  There are so many of these birds around here now.”

Dennis says that these predators come from the Breacon Beacons and are nesting in nearby quarries, old farm sites, reservoirs and high cliffs.

Their arrival in areas more populated by people means that they threaten the lives of hundreds of racing pigeons.

Mike Jones lives in Pontypridd and has been a pigeon fancier for over 40 years.

He also reports frequent attacks on his racing pigeons from both peregrine and sparrowhawks and says that they are no longer scared off by the presence of people.

Mike is a second-generation pigeon fancier who keeps about 100 pigeons.  He says that in the last 15 years, this has become a much more significant problem.

“My neighbour has lost at least four of his racing pigeons to a peregrine this year.

“The nearest peregrine nest is in the Craig-Yr-Hesg quarry.”

Mike is secretary of the Pontypridd and District Homing Society.  He believes the leg rings from his and many other pigeons taken from nearby fanciers could be found in the nests of these predators.

“This is happening throughout the country and the UK.  Racing pigeons provide easy pickings for these birds:  the evidence is very often right there in their nests.”

Racing pigeons are now under threat throughout the year, from different birds of prey.

Dennis Ellis in Merthyr Tydfil explains:

“At the beginning of the year, my young birds are picked on by the peregrines.  It’s so frustrating.

“Then, when they start training and racing, they’re at the mercy of sparrowhawks.  Add to this the ongoing problem we’re now having from goshawks.  They attack quite viciously.”

Earlier this year, a survey was carried out at a pigeon racing show held in the Rhondda Valley.  More than 500 pigeon deaths were reported by 135 pigeon fanciers from the area, plus many more bird of prey attacks – all within a one-month period.

UK-wide attacks on racing pigeons from birds of prey can be logged and tracked on the Royal Pigeon Racing Association’s website.

Pigeon fanciers from across the UK 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 bird of prey populations.

Dennis and Mike believe 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.

Dennis explains that when peregrines attack racing pigeons in flight, it isn’t just one bird that is affected.

“They might only catch and kill one or two, but the other racing pigeons will often scatter and end up damaging or killing themselves in their desperation to get away.

“Pigeons will panic and dive into the nearest area to try and escape – it’s not uncommon for them to panic fly into trees, buildings, or the ground.

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

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 them 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.

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 Wales think these birds deserve to be protected.

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.

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.