Saturday, 31 May 2014

Opinion: Caging the Morecambe 'Bird Man'

The shock news that 65 year old Morecambe man John Wilkinson was given a six week prison sentence on 23 May for feeding birds in breach of an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) has led to local people planning a 'mass bird feed' on Morecambe Prom tomorrow (Saturday) at 1.30pm in protest. The Morecambe Visitor has also launched a campaign to free him on the grounds that the sentence is:
  1. Out of proportion for the crime committed;
  2. An unnecessary waste of taxpayers’ money;
  3. Unlikely to make any long-term difference to Mr Wilkinson’s behaviour or benefit those impacted by his anti-social behaviour in any way.
A lovely and intelligent gentleman
One local resident has called him a 'lovely and intelligent gentleman', relating that he has been subjected to vandalism and abuse. The windows of his house have been smashed, on more than one occasion, and he has been followed and subjected to considerable abuse. The bird-feeding protest is planned to draw attention to a sentence believed to be draconian and unbalanced and unlikely, on its own, to resolve this situation successfully. 

What are the facts?
Residents living nearby Mr Wilkinson's home in Cavendish Road in Morecambe's West End had made numerous complaints for years to Lancaster City Council about the bird mess and nuisance that resulted from the flocks of birds that came daily to be fed. Back in 2005 Morecambe MP Geraldine Smith backed demands for an ASBO to be placed on him because of the hundreds of wild pigeons flocking into the neighbourhood to feed at his house throughout the day. Mr Wilkinson put the calls for him to desist down to 'spite and malice'. He believed the pigeons would starve without him.

An RSPB spokesperson told the Lancashire Evening Post (LEP) '"Pigeons are pretty hardy creatures. There is a lot of food for them to find elsewhere in Morecambe. He could be encouraging a large and unsustainable population to breed."

Morecambe police said (2005):  "We would not rule out an ASBO on Mr Wilkinson. We would, however, hope to deal with this through alternative routes."

Everyone's a critic
Four years and many, many pigeons later, in December 2009, the Storey Gallery in Lancaster ran a project about 'the contest between humans and animals over space' which featured the dispute between Mr Wilkinson and his neighbours prominently, much to the disgust of City Councillor Peter Robinson, who wasn't happy about the council grant-funding a treatment of a painful, ongoing local dispute as an art exhibit and suggested the council should instead look at issuing people who habitually feed pigeons with ASBOs. (See Lancashire Evening Post report 'Anger at Storey's 'bird man').

Coun Robinson's grounds for his aesthetic critique were sound. The dispute was not about a conflict between humans and birds for space. It was between humans; specifically one human habitually enticing flocks of wild birds into his neighbours' space without due regard for the distress, disturbance and health risk he thus inflicted on them. Had it been a dispute between humans and birds it would have soon been settled.

Coun Robinson also backed calls by Skerton resident Norman Tomlinson for the Council to follow the lead of a West Midlands council which had just recently fined a woman who was feeding ducks. However a council spokesman said that bird-feeding was not illegal and the government wouldn't support such unpopular legislation. All they could do was remonstrate, write letters and put up signs. Their hands were tied.

Pigeon fanciers who keep birds are governed by codes of practice and legislation but feeding wild birds is different. Thousands of us do it habitually in our yards and gardens and by the canal, supporting not only birds but also a birdfood industry from which many local businesses profit. We are just not expected normally do it on such a scale within an urban environment and so persistently in the teeth of such obvious problems for our neighbours.

Residents living nearby Mr Wilkinson complained of being trapped in an excremental Hitchcock nightmare. Gutters clogged with birdmuck. Smell. Noise. They couldn't sell their properties to move away either as no-one wanted them.

Finally, in December 2012 Lancaster Magistrates imposed a 2-year ASBO on Mr Wilkinson. Under its terms he was not allowed to:
  • feed any birds in his home or within 100 metres of his address; 
  • feed any birds in England and Wales outside of the exclusion zone unless the feeding takes place twice a day between the hours of 9.30am and 10.30am, then 3.30pm and 5pm, in a location that cannot be the same location in the morning and afternoon; and 
  • no more than half a kilo of bird seed to be fed to the birds at any one time; 
  • feed any birds in England and Wales outside the exclusion zone any other foodstuffs or bird food, except bird seed; 
  • aid, abet or incite others to feed any bird within England and Wales."
This meant that he was allowed to feed birds half a kilo of birdseed twice a day if he could do it over 100 metres away from his house, within two daily timeslots totalling two and a half hours, and never in the same place twice in any one day. 

ASBO Breeches
In July 2013 he was convicted on two charges of feeding birds within 100m of his home and one charge of feeding birds on Heysham Road after 5pm, in breech of his ASBO. He was also convicted of breaching a conditional discharge.  He was fined £265 and £105 costs.. 

In November 2013 Mr Wilkinson was given a four week suspended sentence and ordered to pay £100 costs and a £80 victim surcharge at Lancaster Magistrates Court for a succession of similar breeches. 

His recent 6 week sentence takes the suspended sentence into account, with additional time in respect of a number of subsequent breeches of his ASBO.

What next?
The Morecambe Visitor's campaign asks that Mr Wilkinson be released from prison and for other methods of intervention to be discussed by the relevant authorities.  They also ask for 'active and meaningful support for those in Morecambe who have suffered as a direct result of Mr Wilkinson’s bird feeding activities.'

I certainly hope that the prison system will treat him gently and release him early.  It remains to be seen if, upon his return, he will be amenable to adjusting his bird-feeding practices to make life less intolerable for his neighbours over the long-term, or indeed if he can.

Those who sympathise with him do have the option of helping him to support his feathered friends in other, less anti-social locations. Whether this, if it were achievable, would be enough to persuade him to change his habits and stay out of trouble permanently is impossible for this mere blogger to predict.

£4000 a month 
On average it costs £4000 a month to keep a man in prison in the UK. Mr Wilkinson is not accused of being violent or malicious or fraudulent or larcenous or predatory in any way;  he does not appear to have any criminal intention whatsoever. Sadly, local welfare budgets that might help to keep a man who isn't a criminal out of prison are faced with increasing demands whilst being cut daily to meet government- imposed austerity targets - but the Home Office's budget for imprisonment seems ever-expanding.

I hope, along with the Morecambe Visitor and many, many others, that the statutory and community agencies involved can find the means to come together again and find a new and non-custodial strategy to help Mr Wilkinson address his issues more constructively and find some respite from the troubles they inevitably bring him.  The Council and the judiciary have already resolved, with great difficulty, that it can't go on and I agree. Mr Wilkinson's neighbours have suffered for too many years. 


Elaine Goodall said...

I love birds and am a member of the RSPB. I enjoy trips to Leighton Moss to look out for the beautiful birds in our area and also have some bird feeders in my garden, which encourage sparrows, goldfinches, doves and other birds into my garden. I also like pigeons, and feel they are often overlooked because there are so many on our towns. And that is what I feel is the problem here - the sheer numbers that Mr Wilkinson is encouraging to his back garden; enough to create a noise problem for his neighbours and a large amount of birdmuck, which gets all over the place, looks unsightly and smells. Pigeons, because of their living conditions and behaviour, do often carry diseases as well. I don't think it's unreasonable for Mr Wilkinson's neighbours to be distressed about what sounds like an extraordinarily large number of pigeons to be encouraged. I don't doubt that he is a gentle man who simply wants to look after the birds, but , however unintentioned, he is also inconsiderate of his neighbours. The council is justified in trying to help him and his neighbours to live in peace. It seems as if he won't listen to reason, so they had to threaten a custodial sentence, and then had to carry this out when he continually defied their requests. How would you feel in his neighbours', or the council's position? A difficult situation. Perhaps Mr Wilkinson could be encouraged to help the RSPB with more endangered species instead? I wish him well, but he does need to reconsider how his actions might affect others. Hopefully this sentence will be the trigger for this.

Anonymous said...

Johns current mental state is totally due the horrendous abuse and torture he has suffered for years and years, there is more to this than people are being told. If anybody has ever challenged the people involved with physically attacking john - the abuse was turned on them and that includes areas away from where he lives, they follow him and hound and attack him. And lets not forget it wasn't John who kept smashing the windows of his home. There is a lot of love for John and the authorities involved should take note of that. I bet John would get more votes than Peter Robinson if there was ever a popularity contest