The thread about the Great Leith Pigeon War of 1958-1961

This thread was originally written and published in September 2020. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.

Today’s little bit of local history is the Great Leith Pigeon War of 1958-1961

The Port of Leith’s principle import was grain, for Edinburgh’s baking, brewing and distilling industries, all of which were of a nationally important scale.

In 1952, 319k tons of grain were imported. The next largest import was timber (116k tons) and the largest export was coal at 136k tons. The grain trade boomed in the 1950s, and the resulting spills caused the pigeon population to do likewise

By 1958, the scale of the nuisance was such that the Leith Dock Commissioners engaged a firm of London pest controllers to try and deal with the problem through shooting and netting. Between May and July, 5,529 pigeons lost their lives at the hands of the exterminators.

The contractors submitted a bill of £1,225 and suggested they be granted a permanent contract to visit every 6 months to keep the pigeon population down. The Commission noted this and filed the paperwork away somewhere and forgot about it and the annual expense it entailed.

In the meantime, the pigeons regrouped, reproduced and redoubled their ranks. Within 18 months, the problem was worse than ever and it was not just Leith, it was so bad that questions were tabled at a Docks and Harbours Authorities Association meeting!

The Port of Bristol Authority authority suggested others follow their lead taken at Avonmouth Dock, where an employee was entrusted to “deal with” the problem using his own airgun. It was certainly cheaper than the 4/ 5d per bird that the professionals charged.

At a Leith Docks Commission meeting in February 1960, it was decided to find out if any of the employees was a competent marksman. Instead, what was found was that many more dockers were actually pigeon fanciers, and had been deliberately interfering with the work of the pest controllers to protect the pigeons!

So it was agreed that in future that the Docks Police would be brought in to deal with interference. In the meantime, an arrangement was made with some of the grain warehousemen to net pigeons in their own time for an agreed sum per bird trapped.

The Commissioners also made the more sensible decision to invest £13 10/- in a mechanical sweeper to deal with the root of the problem; grain spillage. Over the next 6 months, 1,393 birds were trapped, but the enthusiasm of the dockers waned, as for every pigeon they could catch, another 2 or 3 were ready to take its place.

To keep the spirits of the dockers up, the commissioners ordered them a “No. 3 Garden Firing Gun”, which fired small 9mm rounds. It wasn’t very effective, but the repeated disturbance to the birds discouraged nesting, and more importantly it wouldn’t damage the skylights.

The bounty was increased to 1/- per bird, with the dockers to provide their own ammunition. By October 1961, after 18 months of intensive effort, 4,285 birds had been bagged. It was also recognised that the problem was by no means solved.

Things were at a relative stalemate, the dockers were able to remove birds about as fast as they could reproduce. But then the birds played their trick card; Starlings.

At this point, the Commission admitted defeat, and instead decided to invest in ultrasonic bird scarers and redouble their effort to reduce spillages.

The war was over. The birds had won.

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