At times, the birds will fly so low they clip the tops of policemen’s helmets. Tourists visiting parliament often get a fright “when they realise the birds aren’t stuffed”, and releasing large birds of prey amongst the House of Commons dining tables has its downsides, Bigwood says. “You do sometimes get MPs screaming on the terrace”.
They seem to work, though. 50 to 60 pigeons used to squat above the Strangers Bar terrace, which is where MPs go to have lunch or evening drinks, and pigeon droppings had started to corrode the stonework. Now they mostly leave it alone, although occasionally the hawks will catch one, and pluck and eat it on the side of the House of Commons, in which case you get an inconvenient “cloud of feathers coming down”.
All this comes at a price – the latest figures supplied by the Parliamentary Estate put the annual cost of birds and handlers at £12,678. A further £1,235 is spent removing pigeon droppings. (Repairs to the buildings currently cost about £50 million a year).
MPs have mixed thoughts: some like them, and some do not, although Bigwood won’t elaborate further. But one MP who must surely be in the anti-camp is Jeremy Corbyn, who loves pigeons: in 1996, he implored Westminster council to view them as “friends rather than enemies”, and in 2003, hearing of MI5 plans to use pigeons as flying bombs, he stepped things up, now looking “forward to the day the inevitable asteroid slams into the earth”.
In fact he has wavered from this principle just once, when in 1999 his political ally Ken Livingstone tried to reduce the number of pigeons in Trafalgar Square – that year Corbyn tabled a motion to control pigeons by reducing their food supply.
There are plenty of Westminster bods who like the hawks, Bigwood says, but it’s important the birds learn early to keep these types at arms length. Various officials always ask to hold them, says Bigwood, “but of course that’s not allowed”. “We have to keep them unfriendly or they’d never get to do their jobs.” Theresa May would surely approve.