Post-Brexit red tape poses threat to cross-Channel pigeon racing

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Cross-Channel pigeon racing is “hugely at threat” owing to post-Brexit red tape that threatens to drive thousands out of the sport, the head of its governing body has said.

British pigeon fanciers have been racing their birds home from destinations in Europe for more than a century without bureaucratic hurdles. But new EU regulations put in place after Brexit mean any bird entering continental Europe must be treated as if it is being imported, even if the pigeon will fly directly back over the Channel as soon as it is released.

In practice, this means a layer of paperwork, veterinary checks and expenses that are prohibitive to many fanciers, Ian Evans, the CEO of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, told the Guardian. “It really is very significant. This historic pastime is at threat.

“We represent racing pigeon organisations all over the country that have been practising cross-Channel pigeon racing for well over 120 years, and there have never been any problems in terms of the spread of disease, which is what these new regulations are concerned about.”

The rules are having a significant impact on many of the 18,000 people who race pigeons in the UK, a large proportion of whom are retired or elderly, said Evans.

“For a lot of these people, pigeon racing has a positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing. This is something they practised all their lives. They may have a team of pigeons which have been selectively bred over decades to be capable of racing across the Channel, and a lot of them feel like that’s been taken away from them.”

The new rules, which came into force in April this year, are a concession on the original post-Brexit proposals, which would have required pigeons to be in the EU for 21 days before being released. While that requirement has been dropped, individual fanciers who want to race from the EU must still be registered with Defra, the relevant UK government department, and have their lofts visited annually by a vet, while their clubs must secure export health paperwork for their birds.

Clubs must also arrange and pay for a vet at every registration point for each race – an expense that many clubs would find impossible to meet over time, say breeders.

The RPRA thinks it is unlikely to get further EU concessions, and is now lobbying Defra to ask for an easing of some restrictions in the UK. One suggestion is that trained pigeon enthusiasts could step in for vets at some of the registration points.

The current summer season, the first under new rules, has already been squeezed. Between April and September, clubs and federations across the UK would previously have organised perhaps 10 or 12 races each weekend home from France or Spain, said Evans. So far this year there have been two club races altogether, with participation at about 25% of normal levels, he said. “So it’s had a massive impact.”

“There’s no doubt that it’s been an extremely big deal,” says Les Blacklock, the RPRA’s regional secretary in Cumbria, whose family have been involved in pigeon breeding and racing for more than a century. “The repercussions for the whole of the sport of pigeon racing … are causing us real problems.”

In his own region of Cumbria, said Blacklock, “nobody to my knowledge is flying from France this year”. While some are happy to revert to shorter-distance racing from Guernsey or northern Scotland, others – including Blacklock – have specialised in breeding birds selected for longer distances. “Dyed-in-the-wool fanciers such as myself who just want Channel racing – yeah, they are upset.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “Following our interventions, the EU commission’s amended export health certificate has allowed cross-Channel pigeon racing to resume. The need for a certificate signed by an official vet is an EU requirement. We continue to work to support the racing pigeon community as they adapt to these changes.”

David Higgins, a member of Horsforth flying club near Leeds, said his local federation would normally organise six or seven races from France a season, but was not planning any this year.

Higgins has been racing for 60 years. “It’s hard to put into words, really, it’s an attachment to birds, there’s a lot of pleasure in breeding pigeons and seeing them grow, become very capable racing birds,” he said. “It isn’t something you can pick up and put down – you’ve got to be committed to it. And I like that.”

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