BBC News


Page last updated at 10:37 GMT, Thursday, 26 June 2008 11:37 UK

Is it legal to shoot pigeons?

Pigeons taking flight

The Magazine answers...

Animal welfare activists have complained to Wimbledon organisers and the police over the culling of pigeons. Is it against the law for marksmen to take out the feral birds?

Pigeons get a rough ride. Vilified as "rats with wings", rock doves - as they are properly known - are the bird the British love to hate.

Common complaints range from well-aimed droppings to dive-bombing. After some tennis players complained of the latter, the All England Club called in marksmen with rifles to disperse the birds ahead of the Wimbledon tournament.

Even feral pigeons are protected
But pest control is legal once non-lethal methods exhausted
Experts advise more humane methods of population control

Now People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) has gone to the police, claiming infringement of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Vice-president Bruce Friedrich says shooting pigeons is not just cruel, but illegal.

Although the act protects the pigeon as it is "of a kind which is commonly domesticated in the British Islands", legitimate pest control is not regarded as causing unnecessary suffering, says a spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

And the Metropolitan Police plans to take no further action.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 states that it is an offence to kill any bird - including pigeons - unless a licence is held, but section one allows exemption if an organisation or individual complies with general licence regulations.

A regular feature in the BBC News Magazine - aiming to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

"This would require a specific public health risk to be identified and other non-lethal methods to be used to disperse the birds before taking the decision to shoot them," a Met Police spokeswoman says.

The All England Club says it shot the birds as a last resort, and the birds posed a health and safety risk to players.

Humane control

Non-lethal methods recommended by the Pigeon Control Advisory Service, an independent bird control consultancy, involve population control.

Bird of prey after the pigeons in Trafalgar Square
Hawks are used by the All England Club and in Trafalgar Square

Methods include pigeon lofts - large nesting boxes from which eggs can be removed - or egg oiling, which deprives fertilised eggs of oxygen and prevents baby birds developing and hatching.

Once such methods have been exhausted, killing the birds is allowed under the general licence exemption or individuals can apply to Natural England for a licence.

Prosecutions under the wildlife act are rare, and the punishment tends to be a fine.

The Clash's Paul Simonon and Topper Headon were prosecuted for shooting pigeons with an air rifle in 1978, but the pair were done for criminal damage as the dead birds were privately owned racing pigeons.

So feral pigeons can legally be shot. But here's the rub - the dip in numbers is only temporary.

Pigeons sit on the heads of tourists
About 18 million feral pigeons in the UK
Breed up to six times a year
Pair for life, and both parents care for young
Longest recorded flight took 55 days and covered 7,000 miles

Picas director Emma Haskall says that killing adult pigeons favours younger birds in the feeding flock that would otherwise have a poorer chance of survival, so numbers are back to pre-cull figures within six to eight weeks.

She adds that pest control contractors recommend shooting because it is highly profitable: "They want rolling contracts."

Nor does she rate other lethal measures such as poison bait, cage-traps and using birds of prey such as hawks - a method favoured by Wimbledon organisers and the former London mayor Ken Livingstone, who faced off against angry activists in the Trafalgar Square pigeon crackdown of 2003.

But the "flying rats" remain a fixture, a draw for pigeon fanciers and tourists keen to indulge their Mary Poppins fantasies.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I think it is a brutal act. Sadly the UK is changing from animal lovers to barbarians. It is happening with chickens, cows, and now pigeons. If you don't have respect for life, don't complain later that new generations are more violent.
Mary, Ascot

Can we include herring gulls in the birds we love to hate? I personally consider them to be more of a public nuisance than pigeons. "Chav Birds" I call them - they serve no purpose than just to annoy and scrounge whatever they can get.
Michael, Folkestone

People in the countryside have been shooting crows pigeons and rabbits for years as a method of pest control. It's so silly that Peta are protesting about this. I suppose everyone should stop using mouse traps too and let them run wild?
Margaret, Edinburgh

I absolutely loathe pigeons with a passion. I have them nesting in the roof space of my flat and the noise they make is horrendous and they are constantly fight at all hours of the day. I won't even begin to go into depth about the mess they make.
Broon, Lancaster

A far more effective method of population control would be to remove their sources of food. Hire a dozen extra people to collect Wimbledon litter and ensure that people don't feed them. Pigeons will only breed when there is enough food to sustain them and their young.
Dan White, Bristol

All the things happening in the world at the moment, and the best thing Peta can find to pointlessly agitate about is the shooting of unwelcome verminous pigeons. Ridiculous.
Nick, Leeds

It's probably only a question of time before the bird flu virus arrives in Europe. In which case the overpopulation of pigeons will be dealt with by nature - and pigeons will then be a definite health hazard.
Barry Hunt, Paris, France

Of course it's illegal - everything is or soon will be.
Ed, Newbury

Did they try getting a few cats, and maybe a terrier or two? The sparrow/pigeon hawk idea is a good one, but they don't tend to hunt or eat many birds over the course of a week. But cats and dogs can be quite greedy - and their presence alone could be a good deterrent.
Mark P, Birmingham

These birds not only mess over everything but trying to feed other birds is hard as the pigeons steal their food. I have a little bird bath and feeder for the small birds but the pigeons have bent the feeder because they are so fat and heavy. I think they should be culled as they are getting as bad as the seagull.
Lyn, Chelmsford

What right do they have to go around shooting anything just because it gets in the way of tennis players - even if they are pigeons.
Emma , United Kingdom

I live in a central London square, where pigeons are such a nuisance that they damage the building facades, deface benches and leave bare patches in the grass in our communal garden. A small population is just about tolerable, but it takes just one persistent pigeon-feeder to swell the population and make crossing the square like an incident out of Daphne DuMaurier's The Birds.
Teddy T, London


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific