Pigeon racing has provided thousands of people with a pastime for more than a century. But an insidious lung disease is now threatening this shrinking British hobby.
A disease unique to pigeon racers is threatening the future of one of Britain’s most enduring pastimes.
William ‘Arthur’ Brown from Cheadle Hulme near Manchester suffers from pigeon fancier’s lung – a disease which affects the respiratory system.
The 81-year-old grandfather of four appears in good physical shape on first impressions. It’s only when Arthur struggles to walk around the house that you notice the price he’s paid for his passion.
“I kept wondering what was wrong with me and in the end I got a blood test. I sent it off and it came back positive with PFL.
“The last two weeks on the medication has been better. Before that I couldn’t even walk to the door and had to stop it was that bad and, of course, when you can’t breathe, well, you start panicking.”
Pigeon fancier’s lung is caused by the inhalation of minute blooms generated by the birds in enclosed spaces.
These blooms settle in the lung lining of around 8,000 people in the UK making breathing difficult.
With symptoms similar to flu, Arthur felt he could shake off what appeared to be just a heavy cold but the disease slowly began to tighten its grip.
“Anything exercise-wise requiring a bit of energy has gradually got a lot harder. In the end I couldn’t carry anything about or walk upstairs.”
Charles McSharry’s experiences and knowledge of PFL makes him one of the leaders of his field.
The senior lecturer in Immunology at the University of Glasgow and has worked on respiratory and immune responses to the disease for over 30 years.
“One of the really important issues is that when a pigeon fancier goes into a loft after exposure and the next day gets exposed to the same dust, nothing happens.
“As such, pigeon racers go through treatments with all sorts of anti-inflammatories which don’t make any difference to this. This has missed the boat.”
“At extreme ends that will kill you.” – Charles McSharry
Dr McSharry explains how the immune system’s repair mechanism is doing the right job but is causing damage inadvertently.
“Over time all this repair business lays down collagen – the basic structural protein of skin and most abundant protein in the body.
“But collagen is non-functional. So if you get your lungs being repaired constantly with this non-functional collagen then over time you’re going to get loss of lung function and at extreme ends that will kill you.”
Dr McSharry acknowledges there is a possibility that what we know about pigeon fancier’s lung can help understand and control the good and bad responses of the immune system.
“Understanding that would be my hope and the overriding goal for sure. It is dealing with this intractable tissue repair in PFL and lung fibrosis.
“No other population helps us understand that like pigeon fanciers so you should put their names up in lights.”
Overall, pigeon fancier numbers have dwindled from the heights of the 1960s and 1970s where upwards of 100,000 people took part and results were printed in Sunday papers.
There are now only 45,000 active racers whose average age is pushing the 70 mark.
Royal Pigeon Racing Association general manager Stewart Wardrop is tasked with dealing with the sport’s decline and sees the ticking demographic time-bomb as a greater challenge than that of PFL.
“I wouldn’t say it ranks as our biggest problem. Our two biggest obstacles are our ageing demographic and raptors attacking racing pigeons. These factors are pushing people out of the sport.
“PFL probably ranks about third and most people who get it do tend to have it in its mild form.”
Despite his condition presenting an uncertain future, Arthur remains stoic.
“Everyone’s lungs and parts deteriorate as you get older.
“It’s staying away from racing – that’s the hardest thing.”
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