Page last updated at 07:19 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Finest dining room in the city

By Jenny Witt
BBC News

Kevin Glackin, sacristan at St Eugene's Cathedral in Derry
Sacristan Kevin Glackin cleans out the bird's leftovers every few weeks

It feels like walking onto the film set for The Name of the Rose.

A narrow spiral stone staircase with hundreds of steps, padlocked trap doors, and finally a couple of ancient cast-iron ladders leading towards the heavens.

There is nothing much below to stop you from falling 20 yards towards the gigantic bells.

This is what it takes to climb into the spire of St Eugene's Cathedral in Derry - a heartstopping journey, even though it only takes you halfway up the 300-foot structure.

It is a little easier, of course, for the large bird of prey that's chosen this special vantage point as its rooftop restaurant.

In the past few months, sacristan Kevin Glackin has found dozens of pigeon carcasses, often complete with their rings, on the balustrade that surrounds the spire.

It is arguably the finest perch in the city, with unparalleled views, shelter from the wind, and under-claw heating from the powerful lights that illuminate the spire at night.

When I scaled those dizzying heights along with pigeon fancier Jim Ramsey on Monday, we discovered a crow's skeleton on the ledge and the remains of quite a few pigeons in the gutter below.

View of Derry
The falcon's perch enjoys panoramic views across Derry

The pigeon fraternity isn't impressed.

Jim Ramsey's colleagues in the Foyle Racing Pigeon Society say more and more birds have gone missing in the past few months.

They suspect a peregrine falcon is the culprit, because it's one of the few raptors strong enough to carry its prey up to the spire.

Other peregrines have wintered and fed in St Eugene's in the past, although they don't tend to nest in the spire.

Jim Wells, an assembly member and chair of the Northern Ireland Raptors study group, thinks another species might be responsible.

"I've had reports that a falconer's bird, an American bird, has escaped in Londonderry and we're frantically trying to trace it and bring it back to its original owner, so the peregrine may not be entirely guilty on this occasion," he said.

Meanwhile, the sightings continue across the city.

A large bird of prey was spotted at St Columb's Cathedral, suggesting that this is a bird without religious preference.

Kevin Glackin wants to catch a glimpse of the winged visitor.

"It'd be nice to see it or have a photograph of it," he said.

But he doesn't mind the climb up the spire every couple of weeks to clean out the bird's leftovers.

"Not at all. You get a spectacular view from up here."

The spire isn't normally open to visitors, so Kevin has no concerns that anyone might interfere with the raptor.

The peregrine falcon is a protected species and, as Jim Wells points out, anyone who harms or disturbs it faces a fine of up to 3,000.

So for now, it seems, the people - and pigeons - of Derry will have to put up with the presence of a large bird of prey in their midst.

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