The Assembly has voted to include pigeon-racing clubs in the list of recreational clubs whose facilities are given discounts on their rates bills after an impassioned plea by a normally reserved back bench Ulster Unionist MLA.
Leslie Cree, who told MLAs that his father had been a pigeon-fancier, took it on himself to drive through the change in the absence of UUP chief whip and pigeon enthusiast Robin Swann, who was visiting the US State Department.
The North Down MLA spent considerable time attempting to convince MLAs that pigeon racing involves physical activity for the owners – as well as for the birds.
Mr Cree, who is retiring in May, had to convince MLAs that pigeon racing meets the legislative test for ‘prescribed recreation’, meaning that it “demands an appreciable degree of physical effort”.
He proposed an amendment to the Rates (amendment) Bill to add pigeon clubs to the list of recreations eligible for an 80 per cent rates discount.
Mr Cree expressed shock that a host of recreational activities – including camping, model power boating, recreational walking, paddleball and bicycle polo – were eligible for the rates relief while pigeon clubs are excluded.
“I believe the premise to exclude pigeon racing due to a perceived lack of physical activity of the pigeon man or pigeon woman to be misguided,” he told MLAs.
“In any event, if the department or LPS were to be exact in that stipulation, how could they and the UK sporting bodies explain ... ballooning, model aircraft flying, gliding, which is a special case, wildfowling, yoga and rambling as activities that require a greater degree or level of physical activity than that involved in pigeon racing?
“In fact, to refuse to treat pigeon racing equally in the rates legislation with those non-sporting activities is wholly discriminatory ...”
Warming to his subject, Mr Cree informed the chamber that a “significant amount of physical activity is undertaken by the pigeon owner in preparation for and during pigeon races”.
An incredulous Mr Cree put it to MLAs: “How can it be argued that the 25 to 30 hours per week of physical activity that is undertaken by pigeon men and women ranging in age from 10 to 90-plus do not improve physical fitness?
“It can and will be shown that the amount of physical activity undertaken by the pigeon man or woman as part of one pigeon race is greater than the combined activity of more than 10 athletes at an athletic meeting.”
As Mr Cree made progressively greater claims for the hobby, Ukip’s David McNarry interjected to ask about the physical demands of pigeon training. He asked: “Are other pigeons involved in that or is it purely human contact?”
Mr Cree said it was an “interesting” question, to which Mr McNarry retorted: “I just want an answer”.
Mr Cree told him he was “no expert” but added that “you have to feed the birds and clean them out every day”, as well as “hoping that they come back”.
MLAs passed the amendment by 55 votes to 29.