Belgian pigeon fanciers are in uproar after thousands of their birds went missing when they were released into stormy weather in a competition that went wrong.
The birds were let out in Narbonne in southern France at the start of a race back to their lofts in northern Europe, but they soon hit a summer storm. The Belgian pigeon federation described the outcome as a catastrophe and blamed organisers for allowing the birds to become airborne despite forecasts of bad weather.
Pascal Bodengien, the president of the federation, told the public broadcaster VRT: “It’s an emotional drama, a financial drama – it’s quite simply very sad.”
He suggested some of the Belgian birds had flown to Germany by accident, adding: “Some of them will come back in the next few days but the majority are definitively lost.”
Didier Tison, a federation spokesperson, said the widely reported figure of 20,000 missing birds was “completely false”. He added that there were about 3,000 to 4,000 lost birds from Belgium, an “exceptional” number, but he was not able to confirm the tally for other countries.
Belgium pioneered the sport of pigeon racing, where birds released hundreds of miles from home compete to make the speediest return. Racing pigeons wear tracking devices, making it possible to work out which was the fastest bird.
It is thought pigeons navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field lines and their sense of smell.
However, this finely tuned sense of navigation was thrown into confusion last Friday when, 18 miles (30km) from the start of the race, they flew into a storm that is thought to have left them disoriented and tired.
The losses are painful for dedicated pigeon fanciers. Amateurs can spend two to three years raising a bird and thousands of euros on sought-after breeders that will provide the next generation of champions.
Luc Henry, a pigeon fancier from Paifve in eastern Belgium, had entered 87 birds into the competition, but only 36 had returned when he spoke to francophone public broadcaster RTBF in an interview broadcast on Tuesday. He said the “pigeons didn’t have a chance” in a race that was “completely distorted”.
Ulrich Lemmens, from Balen in Flanders, who had only 15 of the 57 pigeons he entered into the race return, described his losses as truly painful. “In my 13 years as a pigeon fancier, this is the first time this has happened. Three years of work have gone up in smoke. My goal is Barcelona [a prestigious pigeon race] in 2024. But now I can forget it,” he said.
Despite the sport’s working-class origins, it is increasingly attracting big money. In 2020, a Chinese buyer paid a record €1.6m (£1.3m) for a champion racing pigeon from Belgium.
Belgium has about 18,000 people who keep pigeons and it is a global centre for the sport. As a result, Belgian groups organise many international competitions, including the disastrous contest in the south of France.
After an emergency meeting on Monday, the Belgian pigeon federation called for the resignation of leading officials at the race organisers, Liège Independent.
Tison said the Liège pigeon society had broken the rules of the sport and that the mattter would be raised at a meeting with the minister responsible for animal welfare in the regional government of Wallonia on Thursday.
The director of Liège Independent, Francine Lageot, issued a formal apology on Belgian TV, saying it was “true that the competition did not go well for different reasons”.
But in a statement, Liège Independent hit back at “unfortunate” allegations about its organisation of the race.
While admitting one breach of the rules, the organisers said the release of the birds had been agreed with French, Dutch and German officials, and that the Belgian national sports president had been informed.
Liège Independent added that the “climatic conditions” in the coming days would have made the competition even more difficult, because of increasing temperatures and violent headwinds.
It said: “At 7.20am [last Friday] the pigeons were released in the presence of 40 people.
“They took straight away a good direction towards the north. We express enormous sadness at not having achieved the expected result and the proper return of our birds. Our dearest wish is that all the amateurs will see their pigeons return to their loft.”