Gary Burgess posted a comment on this blog on 18 February on a rather old blog and I thought that few would notice what he had written and so I offered him the chance of a Guest Blog to air his views more prominently. I’m really glad that Gary took up the offer but I really didn’t expect it to generate quite so much heat – but it’s also generated some light, I think.
I’d also like to thank all the people, particular pigeon racers/fanciers for your comments, but Mike Price and Andrew Kyle deserve special recognition for their contributions.
I’ve learned a lot from reading all these comments, and I know, from a private email that he sent me, that Gary has also found it very useful in shaping his thoughts.
Some of the comments came across as very ‘them and us’ in character and so, although I’m sure it’s obvious, I’d better say that I have no interest in pigeon racing and practically no knowledge of how the whole thing is run or organised. It’s another world to me, and not a world that I’ve ever wanted to find out more about, whereas the natural world has always fascinated me. Having said that, I can understand that if I did breed, look after and race pigeons then losses to birds of prey would be extremely irritating and sometimes upsetting. I recognise that from the pigeon fanciers’ perspective there is a real problem and that if I were in their position I would be keen to find a solution too.
But the whole point of letting pigeons go a long way from home and seeing how quickly they come back is that it’s a battle against the dangers that the world throws in the pigeon’s way – whether they be bad weather, peregrine falcons or collisions with pylons or buildings. And yes, peregrine falcon and sparrowhawk numbers have increased over our lifetimes (not because people have been reintroducing them but because they have been recovering from being poisoned by agricultural pesticides) and so the hazards from these two natural species have no doubt increased. I’m not sure that there is much that can be done about the dangers of the race. Certainly few will be sympathetic to a general cull of protected wildlife just so that losses of racing pigeons might be reduced a little. Were the 1960s and 1970s the high point of pigeon racing? If so, maybe that’s because there were artificially few sparrowhawks and peregrines in those decades.
The problem of sparrowhawks taking pigeons in the vicinity of lofts seems to me to be one where we should concentrate on finding some sort of solution. Are problems worst at particular times of day? Or particular times of year? Are all lofts in an area equally susceptible or does the surrounding habitat, proximity to buildings, aspect or other factors have an impact? Are some types of pigeons more vulnerable than others – young ones? males? females? white ones? brown ones? heavy ones? Can anything be learned from this? I don’t know any of the answers to these questions – does anybody else? And do those answers help suggest measures that can be taken to reduce the risk at all? I’d be interested to know.
A few words of advice to pigeon fanciers – including some who have posted comments on this site:
- don’t exaggerate sparrowhawk numbers – yes they have increased a lot in my lifetime but that’s because they were poisoned by farm chemicals in the 1950s and 1960s and their populations were clobbered. And yes, sparrowhawk numbers went up between 2009 and 2010 according to the results of the annual Breeding Bird Surveys (some years they go up and some they go down) but the medium term trend from 1995 to 2009 is for stability in numbers (actually a non-significant decrease) in the UK as a whole (and for England). We aren’t knee-deep in sparrowhawks and we never will be, just as we aren’t knee deep in blue tits either. Nature’s like that and you will look foolish if you suggest otherwise. You will lose the sympathy of those birders who are sympathetic to your plight if you get your facts wrong.
- don’t drag songbirds into the argument unless you are prepared to address the science that has been done on the subject. I can see that if you feel that sparrowhawks are a big problem to your sport then it is convenient to paint them as bigger villains but the science, so far (and lots has been done), doesn’t remotely back up the ‘raptors are wiping out songbirds’ argument. If you trot this out it will be another reason why sympathetic birders will lose sympathy with your plight for they will think that you are just generalised raptor haters.
- don’t slag off nature conservation organisations unless you can get your facts right, because, again, that will make you look as though you are anti-raptor and anti-nature conservation whereas I am sure that most of you are not.
- don’t get too friendly with grouse shooters or Songbird Survival – their ‘issues’ are different from yours (in so many ways).
I have sympathy for the impact that raptors have on pigeon fanciers’ sport and legitimate pastime. I don’t know what the solution is – but then I don’t know much about pigeons and keeping them so I’m not likely to be the best person to ask. But this is essentially a clash between a human sport and nature. If those with the problem come across as anti-raptor, anti-nature conservation and in the end, anti-nature, then many will lose interest in their legitimate concerns. I don’t know whether this sport/nature conflict is soluble – I hope it is – and maybe if we work together it can be.