Pigeons should not have to pay with their lives for our entertainment

Many racing pigeons don't even make it to a year old. We must end this cruel sport, argues Reg Pycroft.


Imagine if the London Marathon had a 90 per cent casualty rate. There would rightly be a public outcry, and the race would be banned. You'll be surprised to learn that some races do have such a high death toll. We seldom hear about them because the victims are not humans. They are pigeons, forced to fly vast distances – sometimes up to 900 miles – in a race for their lives. Pigeon racing involves more than two million birds in the UK alone – and it is deadly.

As a Royal Air Force (RAF) veteran, I have great respect for these intelligent and gentle birds, who have saved lives in wartime and helped find sailors lost at sea. Pigeons serving with the RAF during World War II were the first recipients of the Dickin Medal – the animals' Victoria Cross – for delivering messages that led to the rescue of human airmen.

Over a period of two months in 2012, PETA US – with which I am associated – went undercover at multiple races across Europe and gained access to all major British pigeon-racing organisations. Everywhere they turned, the findings were the same – most birds who are entered into pigeon races never make it home. Many die in storms. They die from exhaustion, drowning or collisions with buildings and power lines that slice open their breasts to the bone. Young birds easily become disoriented, and because they have no experience finding food, water or shelter on their own, they often succumb to starvation or predators.

During the signature race of the National Flying Club – Britain's largest pigeon-racing club –  5,560 birds were released from Fougères, France, to make their way back to their lofts on the other side of the English Channel on 1 September 2012. Most of these birds were not even a year old. Only 622 made it home. The rest are presumed to have perished. Even the Queen entered pigeons in this race, and every one of them went missing.

Pigeons' navigational abilities, which are largely dependent on keen vision and an exceptional memory for topographic details, are legendary. A ten-year Oxford University study found that the birds rely more on their knowledge of human transport routes than on their internal magnetic compasses, and another more recent study found that pigeons are even able to follow ultralow frequency sound waves to try to make their way back to their lofts.

Pigeons mate for life and are doting parents – traits that pigeon racers exploit by separating birds from their mates (a cruel practice known as "widowhood") and their babies so that they will race their hearts out, frantic to get home. Before the races, some fanciers even place plastic eggs beneath the hens, with live worms or live flies inside, to trick them into thinking that they have eggs about to hatch.

In gruelling cross-Channel races, the focus of PETA US' investigation, pigeons in the UK are crammed into cages containing 20 birds or more and are transported for up to seven days to sites throughout Europe. They are released along with tens of thousands of other birds, all disoriented and confused. By far the biggest danger that these birds face is crossing the Channel, which can be 150 miles wide at some points. Birds already exhausted from having flown hundreds of miles face an endless body of water with no sign of land. They must battle relentless winds and rapidly changing weather systems. Those who become too tired to continue have no place to land except on the water. Many drown.

The death rate over the Channel is so high that it is often referred to as the "graveyard". Particularly lethal races are called "disaster" or "smash" races.

There is little doubt about the fate of the missing birds. They are not having a holiday somewhere in Normandy. And they are not living with wild flocks. These birds have been raised in captivity and do not have the skills needed to survive on their own.

When we think of pigeon racing, images of kindly older men with garden sheds may spring to mind. The reality is quite different. Like other forms of animal exploitation, pigeon racing is driven by money. Millions of pounds are bet on these races every year – often illegally – and pigeons who do not win races or are not successful breeders are commonly killed by suffocation, drowning or cervical dislocation (neck-breaking).

PETA US' undercover video shows one man killing a pigeon with his bare hands. He leaves the bird, his wings still flapping, to die slowly in an empty feedbag. Pigeons would naturally live approximately 20 years, but in pigeon racing, most birds don't survive their first year, and if they are not put in a breeding loft, only a tiny percentage of them will make it to age four because of race deaths and culling.

Please visit to join me and my friends at PETA in calling for a ban on these cruel cross-Channel races. Animals should not have to pay with their lives for someone's idea of entertainment.

Pigeons sit in their cages. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.