Trafalgar Square

 25 Sep 2017  Blog

The famous pigeons of Trafalgar Square have been the subject of much media attention in recent years, with council efforts to rid the district of an estimated 10,000 birds at odds with animal lovers' attempts to let them live in peace.

Pigeons have been a feature of the historic square which dates back to 1830 for decades. The area that's now Trafalgar Square was formerly the Great Mews' courtyard, where the stables served Whitehall Palace from the 14th century.

Following the British Navy's victory in the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805, redevelopment of the area began to commemorate the triumph. Architect John Nash was commissioned to develop the new street from Portland Place to Charing Cross in 1812. It was named Trafalgar Square in 1830 and two years later, work began to construct the National Gallery.

Using plans drawn up by Sir Charles Barry, further development of the square began in 1838, including two fountains and the Nelson memorial statue. In 1842, Nelson's Column was erected, based on a design by William Railton. At the base of Nelson’s Column, the famous bronze lions were designed in 1867 by Sir Edwin Landseer and in 1876, the Imperial Measures were constructed in the north terrace wall.

Today, Trafalgar Square is used for community gatherings. Every year since 1947, Norway has donated a Christmas tree, which is erected for 12 days before Christmas Day and 12 days after. Annual celebrations take place around the fountain on New Year's Eve. The square has also hosted political demonstrations such as the first Aldermaston March, campaigns against climate change and anti-war protests.

Until the 21st century, it was renowned for its pigeon population and many a tourist has posed with an armful of pigeons -street traders were permitted to sell bird food there. However, this all came to an end in 2001 during Ken Livingstone's appointment as Lord Mayor of London. Mr Livingstone said he wished to make the square "more pleasant for public use". He banned the bird food sellers, who had traded on the square for generations.

Bernard Rayner's family had sold bird seed in Trafalgar Square for half a century but he was told he must close his stall. He applied for a judicial review after his licence was withdrawn. Eventually, he abandoned his case and agreed to close down his pitch immediately, in return for financial compensation. Part of the sum was donated to an animal welfare organisation at Mr Rayner's request.

Greater London Authority announced a "phased withdrawal" of feeding birds in the square until 30th April 2001. At the time, Westminster City Council insisted it didn't wish to harm the birds but rather wanted the area to be "clean and welcoming" and free from bird excrement.

In 2003, the feeding of birds in Trafalgar Square was banned completely and anyone who fed them faced a £500 fine. The GLA said its intention was to cause the 10,000-strong flock - described by Mr Livingstone as "rats with wings" - to disperse naturally. However, animal welfare groups said the measures spelled disaster for the pigeons and that they would face a cruel death from starvation. They demanded a more humane solution. The pressure group, Save the Trafalgar Square Pigeons, was set up to counter the measures.

Initially, they made an agreement with the local authority that they would be allowed to feed the birds at 7.30am daily, with bird experts monitoring the quantity of food so it could be humanely reduced over a period of time - thus causing the birds to disperse naturally without suffering. The phased withdrawal of food was supposed to continue until 2008.

During the first two years, the population of pigeons was reportedly reduced by 70%. However, further protests followed the announcement that feeding the birds was to be banned with immediate effect, with accusations of cruelty levelled at Mr Livingstone and Westminster City Council. However, the council backed Mr Livingstone's stance, claiming feeding the birds was causing a "significant number of droppings" that made it unpleasant for people using the square.

The dispute rumbled on for years, until the council employed the services of a team of bird handlers from security firm Hawkforce, who patrolled the square with Harris Hawks. The idea is not for the birds of prey to kill any pigeons they find but rather to deter them from landing at all. It has been described as a more humane solution than the other options, such as shooting or poisoning. The company claims the "transient" pigeon population is now down to 1,000 thanks to the hawks, named Liam and Jack, being on patrol every day.

The hawk scheme received a backlash from protesters and even today, it is rumoured that pigeon lovers secretly distribute bird food in nearby locations.

A simple, effective and humane way of deterring pigeons from invading the urban environment is through the use of Henry Cowls' knotted pigeon netting and bespoke sized knotted pigeon netting. Manufactured from heavy-duty UV stabilised polyethylene, the netting can withstand the unpredictable British climate for up to 20 years and can prevent pigeons from causing possible damage to buildings, including gutters and downpipes.

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