The public costs of bird control

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A few months back I was leaving an inquest and noticed some guys putting up netting around a council building. They told me it was to stop pigeons roosting on the top and defecating downwards onto people like me.

“But once you’ve done this job,” I asked, “won’t the pigeons just move over there?”

“Yes,” was the response.

Followed by an admission of blatant opportunism (or business nous). “And when we’ve finished here, we’ll drop off our card at the businesses over there.”

This made me wonder just how much public money was being spent on bird control. Nobody really seemed to know. So I sent out Freedom of Information requests to every council in the UK. Three months later, I was surprised at the lack of responses I had received back and the number of authorities which said they had no idea how much they did or did not spend on pigeons (it seems to depend on accounting codes and so on).

So, in the piece I did for the BBC, (followed up by the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail as well as local papers and radio) I was keen simply to posit the information supplied by those authorities which provided a transparent and detailed account of their spending (as opposed to criticising them as some have done since).

The total amount spent over the past three years was about £3.5m. I suspect the true figure is a good deal more (not least because a number of London councils were amongst those which failed to respond). One of the patterns which did emerge was the amount being spent had doubled over the past three years. To be honest, I do not know how significant this actually is.

In hindsight, I probably should have asked for the spending over the last 10 years. It may have led to even fewer local authorities responding, but I may at least have been able to factor in the post 2008 austerity measures which have hugely affected councils. It may well be the case that councils were spending far more 10 years ago than they are now and that what we are seeing is a return to normal rather than an apparent massive increase.

Possibly. One of the pleasures of this project has been getting to speak with a large number of pest controllers who I’ve enjoyed learning from and debating all manner of issues with. One theme all of the pest controllers have mentioned is that business is good at the moment. Councils – and other clients – are moving away from lethal forms of bird control to gentler, disruptive forms. This, they say, costs more, which may also explain the possible rise.

So my piece on Friday was more of a first stab at an issue rather than anything definitive. It also looked only at council spending and not the money spent by the many other public sector organisations – hospitals, police stations or, erm, the BBC. Nor does it address the issue of potential multiple spends – the potential chain of expenditure moving on the same group of birds from one public building to the next, to the next and so on. Establishing that might be impossible, but it might be worth a try…

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