The foxes are growing fat while the wood pigeons are falling from the sky

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It has taken a while but we may soon get the answer to a question that has, for weeks, been upsetting those who really care about wildlife.

As far back as Christmas I had been reporting massive losses of wood pigeons in North Antrim. But, in spite of a DARD appeal, no one seemed to be able to provide any dead pigeons for scientific examination.

Then on Tuesday of this week Mosside veterinary surgeon Liam McCullough told me he hoped to get wood pigeons in from a neighbouring farmer who had told him pigeons were dying in his yard.

Liam said he hoped to have the results of a post mortem examination carried out by him at his surgery at Moycraig Road in time for next week’s article which was really good news for everyone including those who seemed to be hoping to let dying pigeons lie.

But who hasn’t heard of the old adage – never count your chickens (or your pigeons) before they hatch. In fact it was worse than that; I had just got off the phone to Liam at midday on Tuesday when in walked my son Daniel. “Great news,” he said. “I have got the wing of a dead wood pigeon for you, and you won’t believe how I got it.”

He was right about that for I had never heard a story like this before. Daniel couldn’t wait to tell me how he came to be in possession of a dead pigeon – or at least the wing of it.

“I was driving home for lunch along the Ballybrack Road (Between Cushendall and the main Cushendall-Cushendun road) when I was stopped by a man from Cushendun who wishes to remain anonymous. He told me: “Dan, two foxes have just crossed the road (in broad daylight) and they dropped something as they were going over the ditch. The something was the wing of a wood pigeon.”

I told Dan he could take it over to Liam (16 miles away) if he liked but that Liam would already have some pigeons from a neighbour.

That was Tuesday but on Wednesday Liam told me he had not yet got any dead pigeons, I have left a message on Liam’s phone to say I would leave the wing over to him tomorrow (Thursday) if he thought it would be viable for a post mortem.

Neither Liam nor I have given up hope. I am certain that if there is a pigeon that has died suddenly without injury within 25 miles of Liam’s surgery it will be with him in double quick time, hopefully before you read this.

Farmers in North Antrim, like their colleagues elsewhere, have a lot on their minds at this difficult time but they are always ready to help when called upon.

There has been a massive influx of foxes to the Glens after so many tasty free meals have been on offer since Christmas. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly foxes learn that there are easy pickings to be had in certain hot spots. Dan and his friends have already accounted for seven foxes which I think had been resting up in Craigagh Wood and had been feeding on dead pigeons. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about finding piles of pigeon feathers near the Glendun river and down by Craigagh Wood. I fear there is a lot more work to be done.

I first heard about unexplained deaths of hundreds of wood pigeons a couple of weeks before Christmas. Shooters had told me about how few woodcock had come in over November and early December.

Two field sports men, whose word is their bond, told me that pigeons were simply “falling out of the sky” along a three miles flight path between Glenann and Glendun and a hill walker was quoted as saying two peregrines had been found among dead pigeons three miles away.

Some of my sources tended to point the finger at raptors but I thought there would not be enough raptors in Ireland to cause the deaths of all the pigeons I was hearing about.

Liam McCullough told me on Tuesday that he had carried out post mortems on two pheasants brought to him by Torr farmer Paddy McQuaid. He agreed that Paddy had suffered heavy losses of pheasants in 2014 but he said their deaths were caused by the Hexamita parasite which can often occur among reared birds.

For years I have watched as pigeons came along a South-North flight path but they seem to have been absent for weeks. The fact that dead pigeons have been found in a farmyard near Mosside would indicate that the problem is a lot more widespread than at first thought and leaves a lot of questions to be answered.

On Sunday I heard a wood pigeon cooing in a tree near my home. On Tuesday, after the snow had melted, I found pigeon feathers in a field 100 yards from the house where there had been none a few days earlier. I have not heard any more cooing since.

In conversation with Paddy on Sunday night he seemed to think that the infection which killed his pheasants had been brought in by starlings. And he could be right.

All Paddy knows is that he lost 200 pheasants from the flock he had hoped would provide him, his son Seamus and a small group of friends with some healthy exercise over the holidays. But, sadly, all he found were pheasants lying dead in places where they had sought shelter.

It is postulated that most birds carry a low level of Hexamita at all times and it is not until birds become stressed that they are then able to multiply within the birds.

Two springers were caught on opening day (Sunday) on the Cork Blackwater. But Blackwater Lodge was waiting for the first springer off the Lodge fishery. 

Lodge proprietor, Mr Powell said he had great cause for optimism as he had confirmed reports of the first two genuine fresh springers caught from one beat on the lower river on Sunday.

He said the low temperatures would concentrate springers in the lower river as they were unlikely to pass Clondulane weir (1½ miles above Kilmurry) or Fermoy weirs in those conditions.

At Craigmore the weather was unkind to anglers and any fish caught were deep down. Paul Maguire had nine to 6lb on mixed lures and Martin Foster had 13 to 3lb 10 oz on orange lures.

Jimmy Irvine had 13 to 4lb and Gunter Schiefter had nine on damsels. Joe McCann had 11 to 6lb on red and black lures. Ian Smith had 10 to 3lb on mixed lures. Colin Martin had one at 3lb and Brian Martin had two to 4lb 120 oz on mixed lures.

The Ulster Angling Federation agm will be held in the Dunsilly Hotel, 20 Dunsilly Road, Antrim BT41 2JH on Thursday, February 19 at 7.30pm. Guest speakers: Alan Morrow, Senior Countryside Management Advisor, Department of Agriculture, who will be speaking on Agriculture policy issues and how they affect the environment, in particular, water; e.g. fencing along rivers to create buffer zones; Lionel Knobbs, Angling Development Manager, Loughs Agency who will be speaking on coaching and new angling courses.

Club secretaries should note that, in the interests of economy, papers are being circulated to you, and not to voting representatives. You should therefore ensure that club representatives, who will be attending the agm, are furnished with copies of the relevant documents.

Meanwhile, the Lagan Rivers Trust is seeking volunteers in the Dromore/ Finnis/Kinallen area to monitor the health of the River Lagan by offering training and resources in river fly monitoring.

The trust is holding a training course on February 21 and anyone interested should contact Gary Houston on 07811375420 or garyhousty@hotmail.com.

The Lagan Rivers Trust is a charity concerned with restoring the habitat, water quality and fisheries of the Lagan.

The charity, through a series of partnership projects, will raise significant sums of money to remedy problems such as habitat degradation, poor water quality and diffuse pollution and barriers to fish migration. The Trust is funded by NIEA and the Big Lottery. Directors include landowners, activity providers, anglers and community development.