Dear pigeon fanciers

So you think peregrines are preying on your racing birds ... How do you know they're not just dying of stress, asks the man from the RSPB

Thousands of valuable racing pigeons are being lost to peregrine falcons and sparrow hawks, you tell us, and it's high time the law was changed to allow "somebody" to cull these troublesome birds of prey. Some of you openly accuse us bird conservationists of creating a hopeless situation in which birds of prey just go on and on increasing. Many of you, making common cause with field sports enthusiasts (who want to kill birds of prey for other reasons), are saying that a plague of birds of prey has descended on the countryside and that all our songbirds are doomed.

Let's look at the facts. There is no plague of birds of prey, nor even, as some allege, are there too many of some species. Almost without exception, the numbers of all British birds of prey are below what they should be. Even the peregrine, whose numbers, like those of the sparrow-hawk, were reduced by pesticides in the Fifties and Sixties, has now reached its highest known national population (about 1,285 pairs). But it has still not recovered its numbers in south-east England and is declining in north-west Scotland. What's more, in European terms the peregrine is still a threatened species. Sparrow-hawks, now common again in areas from which they had disappeared, have also made a successful comeback; they have not simply increased. Recent research has actually shown they have declined again in some areas. Sparrow-hawks are the only birds of prey likely to have affected songbird numbers, but there is no evidence that they have done so: small bird declines (and there have been many) are down to habitat loss, change in farming practices and so on, not to birds of prey.

So let's not get carried away on false leads. Your arguments must depend on real numbers and population trends of peregrines and sparrow-hawks, which are well researched, and, even more importantly, on the real damage being done to your interests. But here we run into difficulties: nobody seems able to tell us precisely how many pigeons are lost to birds of prey. Are those killed top birds, second-raters, sick individuals, ones that wouldn't come home anyway, or what? Nor can anybody tell us about other causes of loss: how many pigeons are victims of the weather, for instance, or stress? How do your racing pigeons fare being cooped up in lorries with no water during transportation to the Continent?

Finally, why do you always find it so very difficult to accept that if you are releasing huge numbers of pigeons into the wild - which is a pretty hostile place - you are always going to lose a proportion of these to natural factors, including birds of prey?

Your calls for bird of prey culls cannot be considered seriously without the results of independent research into your claims. We are not unsympathetic, but without some facts and figures nobody can take your arguments very far. Culling is not an option, so keep your hands off. Your pigeons and our peregrines both need the same thing: more research into possible deterrents.

We are proud of what we have done to better the lot of this country's birds of prey. We care as deeply about them as you do about your pigeons.

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