Brexit has robbed British racing birds of their chance to emulate Gareth Southgate’s footballing heroes in England’s bid to conquer Europe, pigeon fanciers said. 

Thousands of British birds missed out on their chance to compete in landmark international races in France and Spain this summer because of EU animal health rules. 

EU pigeons have an exemption from the rules allowing them to be easily transported across borders before being set loose to race back to their home lofts.

But British pigeons lost that special treatment when the UK left the Brexit transition period and the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union on December 31.  

While elite EU pigeons raced at the highest level this summer season – and England’s football stars marched towards their first final since 1966 – British birds were forced to kick their heels back in their home loft. 

The Royal Pigeon Racing Association is now trying to recruit a lobbying organisation in Brussels to convince the European Commission to save the sport. 

“Unless we can get a sensible solution to this then we’re going to see a large proportion of our membership simply walk away from the sport,” said Ian Evans, the CEO of the association. .

“We;ve got a great history in this sport. Just like England can get to the final of the Euros, we’ve got birds who can beat the best in Europe,” said Stuart Wilcox, 48, who has bred and raced pigeons since he was four,

“At the moment, England is going to try and conquer Europe. Sadly, we haven’t got that opportunity,” he said. 

For Stuart, and many  other UK fanciers, it was the first time in their racing lifetimes that they had not pitted their pigeons against the best in Europe. 

Northern Irish pigeons could race because the country remains part of the Single Market under the Brexit treaty to avoid a hard Irish border. 

Between 50,000 and 60,000 pigeons are bred in Britain to race in Europe, mainly France, every year. 

An estimated 16,000 individual birds travel to France in loft lorries alone during the season when weather conditions are safe for channel-crossing. 

Racing from elsewhere or within the UK is not as feasible because of the distances and geography involved, as well as the fact the European races are well-established.  Some of the birds racing now are descendants of heroic messenger pigeons flown during the First World War.

There are fears that the long tradition of British birds racing from France could now end. Mr Wilcox said that will have serious ramifications on pigeon racing’s popularity, especially among the young who are the future of the sport.  

“The future for pigeon racing in the UK is grave without us being able to raise racing pigeons from the south, from France, Belgium and Spain,” he said. 

Racing continued during the transition period and the coronavirus pandemic last year, because of special arrangements made for freight. 

The European Commission has said that British racing pigeons can enter the EU and Northern Ireland until October 20, if national governments decide they can. 

But Mr Wlicox said loft lorries, which carry up to 6,000 birds at a time, had not been granted entry to France, which he blamed on strained relations after Brexit.  

The French insisted that non-EU members had to have health certificates, which are only granted after a 21 day quarantine period in their home country,  Mr Evans said. 

The certificates also require a raft of veterinary requirements which are simply too burdensome for the sport to bear. 

Mr Evans said that the 21 day period was not suitable for elite racing pigeons, who need to race and train like any other athlete. 

“We start racing in April and go through to July. We’ve lost this year. France denied us access to race our birds,” Mr Wilcox said.

“It’s a real struggle, there’s a really bad political environment. Our sport is really in danger of just falling apart,” said Mr Wilcox, who has named one of his pigeons after England  striker Marcus Rashford.

Farm Ivy was the last of 12 British birds to triumph in Europe. She was victorious in the summer of 2016, the same year a disappointing England crashed out to Iceland in the European championships. 

An EU official told the Sunday Telegraph that an EU level exemption for British pigeons next year was unlikely.  

“We continue to encourage the EU to act pragmatically as part of our new trading relationship,” a UK government source said.