A solution to the bird flu issue is direly needed for our beloved sport

Of particular importance is a breakthrough towards a structured solution. The pigeon is a `dead-end host` for the bird flu.

The bird flu once again plagued the earliest weeks of our sport. As was proven by the problems around the area of Meulebeke, where attempts to solve the problem for the victimized pigeon fancier ended without results and in disappointment. In the current playbook of Belgium, there is zero consideration for the fact that pigeons as a `dead-end host` no longer pass on the bird flue. Furthermore, the taken measures vary from country to country, where Belgium in particular follows a very strict procedure when it concerns the pigeon sport. The ball started rolling once more, well over a month ago…

Bird flu around Meulebeke causes new problems

On the 30th of March 2022, a new outbreak of the highly pathogenic bird flu of type H5N1 was discovered at a poultry farm in Meulebeke (province of West Flanders). Around the area of this outbreak, a protective zone was established with a radius of 3 kilometres (within which pigeons were required to stay within their loft) and a guarded zone with a radius of 10 kilometres (within which pigeons are only allowed to fly out, but not to be trained) for a period of 30 days.

Contradictory to last year, this time there was no answer to the request to relax the quarantine for the affected fanciers within the 10 km radius of the outbreak’s location… so that they could partake in the competitions with their pigeons. This despite repeated attempts of the KBDB, the veterinarians-IVPA, 17 mayors of the affected municipalities together with private initiatives of some of the 387 affected fanciers from this area (Amongst who Chris Debacker, as well as a few other fanciers, took a leading role). They wrote to the cabinet of the competent minister David Clarinval and the FAVV. Unfortunately, this did not lead to the relaxation of restrictions that we had hoped for. Only after 30 days, on the 29th of April, came the message that the end screening of the Meulebeke area had been finished with positive results and that this zone could be lifted. Those 30 days of waiting are the following of the guidelines as they are currently written in the playbook.

Although these pigeons could finally partake again in the races after this end screening… a happy atmosphere is certainly nowhere to be found. Carefulness and attentiveness are of the first order as the danger is still lurking. Just over a week ago there were new cases of the bird flu in the Netherlands. It is constantly being vigilant and hoping for the best as the bird flu can strike anytime anywhere and cause a new pandemic. 

The bird flu virus is the sword of Damocles that hangs above the pigeon sport. The affected fanciers are not allowed to train their pigeons nor partake in the competition. Their pigeons are not only missing out on their much-needed preparation for the national classics… all the fanciers in the affected area (no matter where in Belgium) are also losing out on valuable points for all kinds of championships.

A yearly recurring problem

The period where the outbreaks of bird flu seem to be the most frequent is during late autumn and the winter period. This is the so-called 'rest' period for the pigeons and the sport. Though even in the pre-season it can cause problems with letting the pigeons fly and training them for the upcoming racing season. That is without even touching upon the subject of the young birds who make their first rounds in spring and get to know (to recognise) their environment. 

In more recent years the bird flu will occasionally break out somewhere in the middle of the summer and the racing season, either at a private residence or in the worst case… at an industrial company. It is the government's responsibility to take proper measures to prevent the spread of the bird flu and put a stop to it. These measures do however have serious consequences for our Belgian pigeon sport. The recent seasons were affected in multiple regions by the flu.

For some reason, our neighbouring countries do not have the stringent measures that exist in Belgium. There is no reason for the Belgian regulations, as studies and research have shown the impact of the flu on the homing pigeon. Its conclusion was that the pigeon is a 'dead-end host'. Or to put it plainly: The pigeon is the final stop for the virus and it no longer spreads the virus (not to humans, nor to other birds or animals). The scientific evidence exists and is in favour of less strict measures for the pigeon sport!

Meetings and discussions with the ministry and the FAVV in the past have always led to a breakthrough and early relaxation of the regulations for our sport. This time we had to wait and it ultimately did not happen. What happened?

Since 2007

For more information, we visited veterinarians Ruben Lanckriet, head of the Belgian section IVPA and Pascal Lanneau, vice-president at the international level.

During 2003 and 2007 we were confronted for the first times with the problems surrounding the bird flu, with `temporary` stops of pigeons races for certain periods. Both veterinarians (together with a number of other colleagues) have been working on compiling scientifically corroborated files that prove that the bird flu has no influence on pigeons and that the continued spread of the flu by pigeons is non-existent.

Last winter period 2020-`21 an outbreak of the bird flu once again forced our pigeons to be stuck in their lofts, not allowing them to fly from the middle of November till the 15th of February. The KBDB put a lot of effort in and, together with those files, managed to reach an agreement so that from the 15th of February 2021 onwards, the pigeons could once again fly and in the middle of march the individual training races could be held. The IVPA and KBDB during that period both sent emails to the ministry asking to sit down together at a less busy moment to work on a permanent solution to the issue.

The proposition is to write a kind of playbook that would allow pigeons, including those within a quarantined area to be able to fly at all times as well as, if possible - in the middle of the racing season -  allow them to partake in the competitions. To this end, various scenarios have been prepared. One of which contains the suggestion to basket pigeons which fall within a quarantined area separately, still allowing them to partake in the race. 

Thanks to veterinarian Raf Herbots, who knows European member of parliament Hilde Vautmans from municipality politics, contact could be made with the cabinet of the competent minister David Clarinval… which allows for working on a solution that can also work for the long term. A parliamentary question (submitted by one of the mayors) around the files of the bird flu almost reached the Flemish Parlement on the 28th of April 2022. Fingers crossed that this will soon happen.

Contact with the ministry has taught me that they are certainly not negatively posed to a solution for this problem. It is completely understandable that a government, in the interest of all involved parties, would be extremely cautious. The issue lies with the FAVV where they follow the rules to the letter. The FAVV supports the argument to not allow for earlier relaxations on the new European `Animal Health Law`. Though this law states that one should consider the most recent scientific research, and that research has revealed nothing that we did not already know.

This was confirmed by research done by Mieke Steensels (from Sciensano), an expert in avian virology and immunology. The research was performed at the request of David Madeira of the FCI, as the FCI is also still working on this case as it proves a problem in many countries (such as Poland, among others…). The experience was performed in extremely controlled conditions. In the experiment, pigeons were infected with 3 different variations of the bird flu virus. These infected pigeons were put amongst chickens. Chickens are extremely susceptible to the bird flu virus. The results; One of the variants made a pigeon sick in what is a very rare event, BUT there was NO transmittance of the bird flu to the chickens. The conclusion that the pigeon is a ‘dead-end host’ has once again been confirmed. Except… the results of the research have not (yet) been published.

The theory of the 'dead-end host'  was also confirmed through research from April 2021 in the UK through `Risk Assessment` by the Department of Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra). The results were practically the same as those from 2017.

Recent research from South America by Celia Abolik corroborates this fully.

Thus there is plenty of scientific proof available that pigeons as `dead-end hosts` prove no danger to the transmittance of the bird flu virus, allowing for a clear, definitive solution for our pigeon sport.

How do we continue?

At the moment there are also talks with the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) to provide advice and solutions worldwide where it concerns the bird flu and how it affects birds and pigeons. Within the European Commission, European member of parliament Hilde Vautmans tries to raise awareness to the issues, with the goal to give the pigeon another statute.

At the national level, the KBDB is working hard to make a breakthrough happen with the cabinet of minister Clarinval. Though so far no green light has been given. The ultimate goal is to have a solution legally ratified within Belgium, just like in Germany and France. In France, it has been legally documented that, in the period of April the 1st till the 31st of August, no restrictions apply to the pigeon sport... This is also the reason why our pigeons are only allowed into France from the 1st of April. Below you can view the two France documents that corroborate this:

Within Germany these rules 'always' apply to pigeons, and there are no restrictive measures the entire year.

Both the KBDB and the IVPA of veterinarians want a workable solution within Belgium for our pigeon sport. Something is clearly happening, though we still have to keep looking forward to the, hopefully, definitive solution to the suffering of our sport at the hands of the bird flu. Likely with the use some kind of playbook that specifically applies to our competition pigeons (racing pigeons) and the pigeon sport.

In the name of all pigeon fanciers, our heartfelt gratitude to all the parties for their hard work on this extremely difficult issue.

KBDB-petition

While the article above was waiting to be published (due to the translations), the KBDB launched a petition, for the sake of the pigeons that fall within the protection- and guardingzone around an established outbreak of the bird flu, so they can avoid a screening in the future… and thus can participate in training flights and competitions.

View the call to sign the petition by the KBDB here.