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St Mary Redcliffe may alarm its porch pigeons, court rules

24 April 2020

Mild electric shocks can be given to fouling birds, Chancellor decides

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THE Consistory Court of Bristol had to deal with the not uncommon problem of pigeons nesting in a church building, when considering a petition for a faculty for the introduction of material to deter pigeons from the Grade I listed St Mary the Virgin, Redcliffe.

For several years, pigeons had been nesting in the north porch, where the architectural features provided ideal nesting and perching sites. That had created problems such as unsightly fouling, which could cause a slip hazard and disease. There was also the danger of birds fouling directly on to people.

The petitioners had tried unsuccessfully to control the pigeon population by trapping, and the provision of gels and spikes was intended to stop pigeons roosting and nesting. Netting across the roof void had been considered, but it was felt that it would be unsightly and detract from the beauty of the church.

Shooting of pigeons by the existing pest controller had been successful, but that was reliant on the pigeons’ being spotted. There was also concern that shooting pigeons outside the church would have the potential to create an “adverse reaction from members of the public”.

The Chancellor, the Revd Justin Gau, said that the implication of that was that shooting of pigeons inside the church had not caused an “adverse reaction”. He said he had to admit to being “impressed by the sangfroid of a congregation that apparently does not react adversely to guns being discharged inside its church”, and that that gave “a startlingly fresh insight into the phrase ‘the Church militant here in earth’”.

The Chancellor warned, however, that, under the terms of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, killing pigeons even with a “general licence” other than “for the preservation of public health and safety” would be illegal, and general licences to kill pigeons were not being issued.

The proposal by the petitioners was that a pigeon-deterrent system be installed involving the renewal of bird spikes and gel, coupled with a device with the tradename Avishock, which worked in a similar way to an electric fence for cattle. When birds landed on a conductor strip that had been installed, they received a small electric shock sufficient to make them leave the areas that they had landed on, and more importantly, not to return.

The DAC was concerned about the legality of the Avishock system in case it caused harm to wildlife and resulted in a prosecution for animal cruelty under the 1981 Act and the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Any prosecution would normally be brought under the 2006 Act for causing “unnecessary suffering”. Concern about the welfare of the pigeons was also raised by Bristol Council, and the RSPCA did not support the Avishock system.

The Chancellor had to decide whether the electric-shock system would produce “unnecessary suffering”. The repellent gel was regarded as lawful, and it was described as giving off “a UV light which is invisible to us, but to the pigeons it looks like the building is on fire . . . [and] also contains oils that the pigeons don’t like”.

The Chancellor remarked that he never thought that he would have to make a judgment involving “trying to fathom whether a pigeon would be caused more suffering from the unshakeable (but wholly wrong) belief that his roost was both on fire and exuding unpleasant odours or from the unshakeable (but wholly true) belief that, if he returned to his roost, he would receive a disconcerting and mild electric shock to his feet”.

“Suffering” in the widest sense would be caused to a pigeon by the Avishock system, the Chancellor decided, because otherwise the system would not work. But the suffering would be very mild and no more, and arguably very much less, than the “suffering” caused to livestock touching an electric fence. The suffering was not “unnecessary” and could not reasonably be avoided for the purpose of preventing damage to a Grade I listed church. There was also a chance of distress being caused to people who had to cope with the fouling by pigeons. Other methods of pest control had been tried and found wanting.

The Chancellor was satisfied that any suffering caused would be for a legitimate purpose, which was the protection of property. The suffering was proportionate to preserve the building and to avoid distress to staff, visitors to the church, and members of the congregation. The conduct would be that of a reasonably competent and humane person.

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