Pigeon fanciers ruffled by peregrine attacks: Expensive birds are 'meals on wheels' to falcons. Andrew Morgan reports

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The Independent Online
Gwent Lad, a champion racing pigeon worth several hundred pounds, went missing two years ago on a training exercise in mid-Wales, and Brian Jones, his former miner owner, is in no doubt of his fate.

'The falcons got him,' he said. 'For peregrines, our birds are like meals on wheels.'

Mr Jones, a miner for 30 years, used to train his star racing pigeon from a loft on a hillside overlooking Blaenavon, a town in the valleys of south Wales where the pits are museums.

This season, Mr Jones - in partnership with his brother and nephew - claims to have lost a further half a dozen big money-winning birds to the falcons. Ray Palmer, the club chairman, has lost six this year, worth pounds 100 each. Others can fetch pounds 1,000.

Their experiences are about to feature in a report from the Welsh Homing Pigeon Union calling urgently on the Government to allow the removal of peregrine falcons from specific nests.

Another Blaenavon fancier, Mike Jones, lost more than 40 young birds to falcons a few weeks ago during an exercise session. It was his second blow in successive seasons and he is considering selling his loft.

'What's the point with these killers about?' he said. 'Up here, song-birds are virtually gone because of the hawks.'

The wild hills above the industrial valleys, including the Black Mountains, are traditional habitats for falcons and sparrowhawks. But coal brought working men in, with their tamed birds.

The Blaenavon fanciers are some of the more militant in the Welsh Homing Pigeon Union, which has 3,750 members. They have played a leading part in compiling reports on the deaths, claiming that falcon numbers are high enough for some pairs to be trapped and released elsewhere. The union calculates that at least one pair of falcons nests in each of the 14 main valleys in south Wales, causing havoc to a pastime that has increased in importance with high unemployment. But any removal would require a licence from the Countryside Council for Wales, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds highlights the birds' protected status under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and other European legislation.

Even so, the union intends to publish a costly glossy brochure to be sent to all MPs.

Fanciers in England, particularly in Cornwall, are also compiling dossiers.

Racing pigeons are more attractive to falcons than wild pigeons because of the height at which they fly. The result is that many lofts around Blaenavon have birds with wings torn badly by peregrines swooping in from behind and failing to grab the meaty belly.

Many pigeons are killed but more scatter in terror and hit trees and wires, or are too terrified to return to the loft.

According to fanciers, tell-tale signs of a falcon attack are pigeons arriving trembling and not in a bunch.

Most of the local falcon nests are known, but two pairs on moorland at Pwll-du on the Blorenge Mountain, a few miles north of Blaenavon, are said to be responsible for many deaths.

Other falcons nest on the steep outcrop of Skirrid Mountain, near Abergavenny, as well as Llanelly Hill and around Coity Mountain, adjoining the town. Mr Jones said: 'There's a boy on the Abergavenny-Hereford road who dare not exercise his birds because peregrines just play hell with them.'

Fanciers realise that removing all local falcons is merely a dream and are focusing on pairs at Pwll-du. 'Nobody has ever suggested harming these creatures,' Mr Jones said. 'We could easily have taken a gun to them at times. Plenty of opportunities - but nobody wants that solution.'

Feeling is so fierce that a sale of young pigeons was held two years ago to pay the fines, of several hundred pounds, of two fanciers found guilty of smashing peregrine eggs in north Wales. Roger Lovegrove, the RSPB's Wales officer, dismisses the fanciers' claims. He concedes that falcons near a loft will eat pigeons but says peregrines have been there for millenia, long before lofts. 'Numbers fell for 15 years through pesticide poisoning but, after the revival, they reinhabited old haunts,' he said. The RSPB estimates that there are 300 breeding pairs in Wales, but about 50 pairs have already been lost this year. 'We have a special responsibility for this bird and Britain has the healthiest population in the northern hemisphere.

'Killed peregrines would be immediately replaced in the area by others coming in - so it's futile to even think of it.

'Relocating them to remote areas is a lunatic suggestion because they would be home quicker than the trappers.'

Yet Moelwyn Davies, president of the Welsh Homing Pigeon Union, casts doubt. 'Nobody has tried it yet and so it must remain conjecture.' Thousands of young pigeons are ringed each year in Wales, the RSPB said, and many were lost during exercising and races. 'A mind-numbing number simply go astray,' Mr Lovegrove said. 'Our telephones are constantly ringing with people finding lost pigeons.'

But militancy around Blaenavon is deepening. There was a furore several years ago when the bird press published a list of pigeon number tags found at a falcon's nest near Blaenavon and leaked to fanciers.

For conservationists, the picture has become more healthy. But the men of Blaenavon still witness the sight - devasting, they say - of falcons swooping into thousands of pigeons flying north through the valley.

The problem did not exist when Mr Jones, 56, started racing in the Fifties. Then, falcons were recovering after the war years, when they were shot to protect pigeons carrying secret messages from Europe.

In his loft, Mr Jones clutches his latest star - Churchview Boy - which won him the Welsh Grand National last month.

'We all fear the months when the weather gets worse and falcons hunt hard,' he said. 'Training champions like this, worth hundreds of pounds, is just a lottery. Which other sport, part of a community's culture, would tolerate it?'

(Photograph omitted)