Ken Livingstone had no idea what he was letting himself in for when he tried to starve Trafalgar Square’s 4,000 semi-domestic pigeons. He thought he could quietly kick Bernie Rayner, the pigeon-food seller, off the Square and that in within a week or two the birds would be dead – problem solved. It would be a bit of a betrayal of his-pre-election promise to create a “crueltyfree London” but who would notice?
It was an astonishing miscalculation for a politician who believes himselfto be so in tune with the people. Londoners noticed. Tourists noticed. The media noticed. Celebrities noticed. Other politicians noticed. Within days, a loose-knit group of groups and individuals, under the banner Pigeon Alliance, found themselves on a rota of volunteers who, between them, travelled to the Square day in, day or, come rain or shine, with six 25kg sacks of grain for the birds.
The GLA’s response to this peaceful act of life-saving direct action could, at its kindest, be called overzealous. Most would consider it downright barbaric.
Hoovers and hoses
Feeders, including one in her late 70s, were assaulted by the GLA's Heritage Wardens as they tried to feed. Loud hailers and claxons were used to terrify the birds as they tried to feed and huge vacuuming machines were used, ostensibly to suck up the grain we were putting down, although in reality live birds were frequently - and deliberately - sucked up too.
Powerful industrial hoses were turned on the birds as they tried to feed. The hoses were also used to wash the grain into the road, where it was inevitably followed by frantic starving pigeons which, of course, ended up under the wheels of cars.
Cleaners were employed to stuff dead and dying birds into black plastic sacks each morning.
Meanwhile, Rayner, then aged 47, applied to the High Court for a Judicial Review of Livingstone's ruling, but in October 2000 told presiding judge Mr Justice Hooper that he had accepted an undisclosed cash sum in an out of court settlement and would be abandoning hiscase. He had been bought off.
On hearing this, we decided that a formal campaign for a humane, long-term strategy to be implemented.
The late labour MP and former Sports Minister Tony Banks tabled a motion in the House of Commons on the matter. "Pigeons in Trafalgar Square are part of the London scene enjoyed by citizens and visitors alike," he protested. "The Square's feral pigeons are sociable and intelligent creatures who have become accustomed to a food source provided by humanbeings."
Celebrity Carla Lane added her voice. "The problem with politicians is that they do not understand how much people love feeding the pigeons," she said, adding that the birds were often a child's first contact with animals. "If a pigeon lands on a child's shoulder it will paint a good picture in their mind and show them all animals are worth caring for."
A detailed report was prepared in conjunction with experts and based on the best available scientific evidence, which set out how pigeon numbers could be reduced humanely over time, whilst allowing tourists to feed them in a designated feeding area in the Square. The report, complete with professional artists’ impressions, showed how attractive “dovecotes”, comprising numerous next boxes, could be built, from which eggs could be regularly removed. It detailed other institutions which had implemented similar measures and had seen dramatic reductions in pigeon numbers. The GLA dismissed the report out of hand.
Eventually, after months of not even answering our letters, the GLA realised we were not going away and asked to meet us. After several meetings, the GLA seemed to acknowledge that the price of a deal with us was that any agreement must protect the welfare of the Square’s birds – we could accept a reduction in numbers so long as no birds were killed, starved or otherwiseharmed.
It was clear that the only humane way ahead was for the food given to the birds to be reduced, but only gradually in order that the birds were not adversely affected. We made clear there would be no reduction unless it was sufficiently gradual to protect the birds. We had been expertly advised this may take at least three years. The GLA was adamant it could be done in a few months. Agreement began to look as far away as ever.
Eventually, however, a little lateral thinking got us through this stalemate. Both parties agreed than independent scientists should supervise the reduction – weighing the birds, ringing a sample to see where else they fed and carrying out behavioural observations. In short, the rate of reduction would be based not on guesswork but on evidence. The GLA would buy the food and their Heritage Wardens would feed the birds, under our supervision. The scientific team chosen to perform these duties was led by Tony Sainsbury of the Institute of Zoology and included, in a supervisory role, Clifford Warwick of the Bioveterinary Group - a team of animal-friendly scientists and vets.
For some months the deal worked well – until an embarrassed GLA realised that we had been right – the phase-out of food was going to take years, not months. They threatened to withdraw from the agreement and again talked in terms which amounted to starving the birds. Months of tense standoff began, during which the food was not reduced. With the active support of the Green Party, we threatened mass feeding, a huge publicity campaign and the disruption of Ken Livingstone’s election campaign unless the GLA re-entered the deal.
A few months before the 2004 Mayoral election (presumably not wanting Ken’s campaign disrupted by campaigners dressed as pigeons and hurling fake pigeon crap at every turn!), the GLA gave in – and told us we could determine the rate of reduction ourselves, based on the evidence of whatever experts we care to employ.
Under the deal, we are now responsible for buying the birds’ food and feeding the birds – which means we need money!
Disgracefully, the Mayor pulled out of this deal and the future of the remaining birds is in our hands. At the moment we are, however, still feeding the birds, despite the Mayor’s actions, but we need your help. See here to find out what you can do.