News and Stories

Scottish Racing Pigeon/Sparrowhawk Predation Research Trial 2009 (SHU Analysis of the Report)

Scottish Homing Union response to British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) analysis of recent pilot study by Scottish Government (SG) Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Scottish Homing Union (SHU) on two main options to reduce impact of Sparrowhawk predation on Racing Pigeons in Pigeon fanciers garden lofts.

Summary

Despite several budget restrictions, opposition, obstructions and delays over two years by raptor enthusiasts which led to disillusionment amongst Pigeon fanciers and the lack of scientific advisors on the ground, finally and thankfully, this project went ahead with a protocol agreed by SHU and SNH on the instructions of Mike Russell, at that time the Scottish Government’s Environment Minister. The analysis of the result of the project was subcontracted to BTO by SNH.

The trial was designed to test two main options to reduce impact of Sparrowhawk predation on Racing Pigeons at the Pigeon fanciers own loft and garden:

Results

The BTO analysis of the 23 remaining lofts log diaries at the end of the trial confirmed and recorded what to us is the horrific slaughter and unacceptable levels of Sparrowhawk predation that is taking place at many Pigeon fanciers home loft and gardens.

The results also demonstrated that some conservation groups, raptor enthusiasts and animal welfare groups have no concern for out Pigeon’s welfare and wish to ignore the miserable, protracted deaths and injuries suffered by thousands of our Pigeons at their home by Sparrowhawk attacks.

Background

The SHU have been trying to get a legal solution to the problem of Sparrowhawk attacks at lofts in the fancier’s own back garden for past 15 years. Sparrowhawk attacks at lofts terrorize the Pigeons, disturb the sanctity of the loft and make what should be the safe haven of the Pigeon’s home into a hazard area. This prevents the development of a robust homing instinct in the Pigeons especially young birds. Sparrowhawk attacks result in Pigeons kills, injuries and loss of Pigeons, many of which are never seen again from the moment of the attack. It is important to realize that these Pigeons at home lofts are already survivors of repeated raptor attacks on their flights home during the current and previous racing seasons. Sadly it is a long recognized fact amongst Pigeon fanciers that the Sparrowhawk kills a higher proportion of our best Pigeons, especially performance tested and champion birds, than any other raptor. This is because of the Sparrowhawks vastly increased ‘recovery’ numbers from their decline and protection more than 40 yrs ago due to the use of organo-chlorine pesticides in agriculture (since banned), as well as its technique of ambush and attack from cover exclusively at Pigeon lofts where the Pigeon is an easy target and vulnerable at low velocity at the loft or garden.

In 2007 Mike Russell, at that time the SNP Environment Minister, met with Pigeon fanciers, visited their lofts and suggested the live trap and relocation of offending Sparrowhawks as a sensible and humane management option. The Minister initiated a trial by SNH and SHU to test the effectiveness of the procedure. This resulted in an orchestrated campaign by some conservation groups and raptor organizations resulting in delays and blocking tactics to the onset and progress of the trial. The use of live Pigeons as an attractor in the adjoining inaccessible part of a Larsen Trap (standard research practice) was also denied to Pigeon fanciers in this research by the efforts of the raptor enthusiast groups. Surprisingly and disappointingly this even included the SSPCA who were keen to ensure the safety of the Sparrowhawk but ignored that of the Pigeon and forced us to await the abhorrent suffering and protracted death of the Pigeon for it’s use as a carcass when it should have been humanely and easily prevented as planned in the design of the original trap and protocol which had the aim of ‘no Sparrowhawk harmed - no Pigeon harmed’.

Legacy of the tactics of delay

The return of 23 ‘useable’ diaries by Pigeon fanciers in this research out of 45 at the onset of the trial is disappointing and in our opinion a legacy of the delays and repeated interruptions to the start of the project by the raptor enthusiasts lobby. However, it is important to realize what was required in this research. We were asking fanciers to stand back and allow their Pigeons to suffer a miserable death with severe doubts as to whether the research would take place at all due to the obstruction and blocking tactics of the raptor favoring groups. These doubts were increased by the postponement of the start of the research on several occasions over the two years by their tactics and raised the prospect of fanciers having to sacrifice Pigeons, including proven performance birds, for no purpose. Finally, the research only got underway due to the Ministers insistence in mid January 2009 with the allocation of traps and licenses and lasted till near the end of March, a period of 10 weeks.

It is important to note that the BTO analysis shows that the average daily loft opening rate during the trial period was 33 days per loft out of 78 days available, this was due to inclement winter weather and other genuine factors. It is also important to be aware that volunteer lofts were recruited in winter of 2007 but due to delays in onset of trial were not called upon to participate fully until January 2009. It is known that Sparrowhawk attack rates vary from year to year at various lofts hence not all the lofts, by the time of the trial, would be ‘high Sparrowhawk attack sufferers’.

Results

The final BTO analysis of less than 1% of the total Pigeon lofts in Scotland shows the remarkable, and in our opinion, totally unacceptable impact of Sparrowhawk predation at the 23 Pigeon fanciers garden lofts over an average period of only 33 days per loft. This was recorded as follows:-

The overall effect of predation by Sparrowhawks on Racing Pigeons
Total number of attacks by Sparrowhawk
(383 additional Sparrowhawk attacks were excluded by BTO in their robust analysis)
196
Total Pigeons killed by Sparrowhawk 46 (4%)
Total Pigeons injured 32 (2.7%)
Total Pigeons missing permanently from moment of attack 36 (3.1%)
Total missing from moment of attack but returned some time later debilitated 222 (19.3%)

BTO analysis of the results of the trial records that some individual Pigeon owners witnessed up to 56 Sparrowhawk attacks at their lofts, some up to 18 kills at their lofts, some up to 5 Pigeons injured and some with up to 21 Pigeons missing never seen again after attacks at the loft.

These statistics appear to be dismissed as being ‘inconclusive’ in the report yet equate to a total of 29.1% of Pigeons released in the trial suffering a measurable physical or mental effect. In our opinion this affects the sanctity of the loft making it a hazard area for the Pigeons and producing a negative affect that has the potential to destroy the homing instinct of the Pigeons. With approx 300,000 Racing Pigeons at risk of sparrow hawk attacks per year in Scotland and 70% to 80% of lofts reporting attacks in various studies, this would indicate that around 70,000 to 80,000 individual Pigeons are likely to suffer physically or mentally at their home due to Sparrowhawk attacks, not to mention the considerable, though difficult to measure, affect on their homing instinct away from home. We believe this carnage is unacceptable given that there is a humane, safe and effective management option for the problem in the form of trapping and translocating problem Sparrowhawks.

Success of Larsen Trapping and translocation of Sparrowhawks

Of the ten lofts using Larsen Traps that submitted a useable loft diary, though still handicapped by the inability to use a live inaccessible Pigeon in the other half of the trap as a decoy, five loft owners trapped 8 Sparrowhawks using the carcass of the victim of the Sparrowhawk. All of the Sparrowhawks trapped were unharmed in the process and translocation was highly successful with only one adult female Sparrowhawk returning to the loft area; significantly still in good condition after 33 days. All relocated Sparrowhawks had been radio tagged and all were tracked safely after release for up to nine days of the tags battery life.

Diaries submitted by two of the trap group lofts that had caught a Sparrowhawk showed significant drops in Sparrowhawk attacks after the removal of the offending Sparrowhawk:-
One Sparrowhawk attack at loft per 19.6hrs pre capture down to one attack per 67hrs post capture.

It is reasonable to assume that most of the trial fanciers, indeed any fancier, would plan to get their Pigeons back in from exercise after one or a most two hours per day at this trial time during the winter season to the end of March. The above allows the conversion of the attacks per hours to recognizable portion of days, namely - Pre Sparrowhawk captures = One attack per 10 days and Post capture = One attack per 34 days. It is disappointing however, that this was not officially reinforced by the other three loft owners who trapped a Sparrowhawk with the same benefits. These three lofts were excluded because they failed to submit a diary (e.g. one was lost in post another was lost in house move).

Deterrents

As experienced previously with all so called deterrents, in this case the visual and partly acoustic deterrent, Mylar Tape, did not prevent Sparrowhawk attacks and had no effect on the rate of Pigeons killed or injured by Sparrowhawks, in fact it seemed to increase the numbers of Pigeons missing. Attacks-113; Kills – 13; Injuries -13; Missing Permanently – 33; Missing returned later – 199. All when the tape was in place.

Conclusion and Hopes

In spite of reassurances from Government Ministers in the past that there was room within the current Wildlife Act to allow trapping, still no license has ever been granted in the 3 decades of the Acts existence. However, this new research must persuade Government that we be allowed to protect our Racing Pigeons and that legal trapping and translocation of problem Sparrowhawks is the only humane management method that will achieve this.