Pigeon Racing Ban Lifted in Western Europe, Bird Flu Risk Low

LONDON, UK, March 16, 2007 (ENS) - The ban on pigeon racing in Western Europe will be lifted on April 1, 2007, the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Defra, announced today.

A ban on pigeon racing from outside the British Isles was originally imposed in October 2005 following a veterinary risk assessment of the likelihood of H5N1 avian influenza transmission.

The end of the higher risk autumn migration and over-wintering period, coupled with the absence of evidence of disease in wild birds in Europe, has led to a revised veterinary risk assessment which has informed the decision to lift the pigeon racing ban from April 1.

International pigeon racing will be permitted from France, the Channel Islands, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.

Pigeon racing from Western Europe will still be subject to the existing conditions on domestic races of notifying in advance, record keeping and biosecurity.

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Racing pigeons such as this one have been clocked at over 100 miles per hour for distances of more than 100 miles. (Photo courtesy Speed Pigeon)
There will be an additional requirement for all returning birds to be kept in isolation from other birds for seven days. Birds also should be regularly inspected for signs of disease.

All restrictions, including on bird gatherings, in Suffolk and Norfolk following the outbreak of avian influenza in turkeys in Suffolk were lifted on March 12 in line with European legislation.

Epidemiological investigations have found little evidence of the involvement of wild birds in that outbreak and there have been no bird flu cases detected in wild birds in Europe since August 2006.

Since 2003, the H5N1 virus has caused the deaths of hundreds of millions of chickens, geese and ducks in nine Asian countries and has spread to Turkey, Romania, Croatia, Ukraine, Hungary, Russia and Azerbaijan, and into Africa. A total of 279 people have been infected, of which 169 have died of the disease.

Since the occurrence of human cases in Turkey and Azerbaijan at the beginning of 2006, there have been no new human cases of H5N1 reported in the European region although there have been numerous outbreaks in poultry and wild birds.

Since January 2007, confirmed outbreaks have occurred in poultry in Hungary, the United Kingdom, Turkey and Russia.

Apart from a case in Cellardyke, Scotland where highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 virus was isolated from a dead wild Whooper swan sampled on March 31, 2006, there have been no confirmed isolations of this virus in wild birds in the UK during 2006 or 2007, despite enhanced surveillance.

There were widespread and sporadic detections of the H5N1 virus in dead wild birds and poultry in European member states during the spring and summer months of 2006.

Since then there have been two confirmed outbreaks of H5N1 Asian lineage in domestic free range geese in Hungary, most recently on January 30, 2007.

There has been one confirmed outbreak in indoor poultry in the UK when turkeys on a farm in Holton, Suffolk were found to have the H5N1 virus on February 3, 2007. This outbreak does not appear to be associated with infected wild birds or other UK domestic poultry or captive birds, Defra said, and the facility has been cleansed and reopened.

Defra will keep the risk assessment under constant review and would consider new restrictions if the avian influenza disease situation in wild birds changes.

Chief Veterinary Officer Debby Reynolds said, "The lifting of the ban on pigeon racing from April first is an appropriate response to our assessment of the level of risk of disease from wild birds. However we are keeping this risk under review and there is a constant low-level risk of avian influenza. Therefore I urge all bird owners and pigeon racers to be vigilant and maintain high standards of biosecurity."

The global bird conservation group BirdLife International says outbreaks of avian influenza among wild birds in Europe and Iran during 2006 show that wild birds are capable of carrying the virus to new sites after infection.

"How this happens is still unknown," BirdLife says. "It is possible the birds spread the disease in a 'leap-frog' fashion by travelling for a short time and passing on infection to another group of birds before dying, and can thereby contribute to the long-distance spread of the virus. There may also be some species that are resistant to H5N1, and capable of infecting other birds without themselves showing serious illness."

BirdLife says one of the key uncertainties relating to the role of wild birds in spreading H5N1 is whether wild birds can carry and spread the disease without showing symptoms, and the organization is calling for more research to resolve this question.

The pigeon racing season begins in April and finishes in early October. Most races take place during the summer months. International races are scheduled for mid-summer when day length allows birds to cover greater distances in a day.

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Pigeon fancier with her birds (Photo courtesy Royal Pigeon Racing Association)
Pigeon fanciers keep their birds in lofts. Prior to a race, fanciers belonging to a pigeon racing club will gather their birds at their club where the birds are given a rubber race ring, placed in release crates and transported to the liberation site for release. For larger races pigeons that have been gathered at club level will then be taken to another location and loaded on to transporters with birds from other clubs for release.

For UK races, birds are usually liberated within 24 hours of being placed in the release crates and for the longer international races birds are usually released within 72 hours. However if there is a delay to the start of the race, possibly due to adverse weather, this period may be extended.

Following release, for races within Great Britain, birds are expected to return to their loft within 24 hours. For longer international races this period may be up to 72 hours. Birds returning from southern France or from Spain may rest on the northern coast of France when night falls.

A small number of weaker or disorientated birds may return several days after the others or return to a different loft altogether. Factors such as adverse weather may delay a large number of birds from returning within the expected timeframe.

In addition to organized races pigeons are also gathered together for training flights. This may be done on an informal basis. Birds from several lofts may be gathered together and transported to a location for release. Training flights begin in advance of the racing season.

Avian influenza is a notifiable disease in racing pigeons. Any person suspecting avian influenza in racing pigeons has a legal obligation to notify the State Veterinary Service.