FEARS are growing that the threat of a worldwide bird flu pandemic could have a drastic effect on one of the region's favourite sports.

Yesterday, the North-East Show of the Year, one of the most prestigious events in the pigeon-racing calendar, was cancelled - the latest victim of a ban aimed at preventing avian flu from spreading to humans.

But last night, a spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) moved to reassure worried pigeon owners that the ban, which at present affects all bird events, will not stop pigeon racing when the season begins in April.

The North-East Show of the Year, run by the North of England Homing Union, was to have taken place in South Shields, South Tyneside, on November 26.

Union secretary David Power said: "The position is that we could go ahead with the show, but were not allowed to have any birds at it."

A Defra spokesman said last night: "We realise that pigeon racing has a very important place in this country and efforts are being concentrated on developing conditions in which pigeon shows can take place, so people can continue with this traditional pastime."

Defra said it hoped to have new rules in place to allow racing to start before the season beings in April.

The show is one of a number of pigeon racing events around the country to be called off after Defra took advice from the European Union, which wants to see the transportation of birds curtailed for the time being.

Jan Bailes, a prize winning pigeon fancier from Loftus, east Cleveland, said: "Some fanciers are breeding up to 100 birds. This decision could damage the industry and their livelihood."

Pigeon breeder Les Woolf, 66, from Staindrop, County Durham, said: "There's a lot of confusion at the moment with nobody really knowing what's going on."

Dave Drinkhall, assistant secretary of the North Yorkshire Federation of Pigeon Clubs, said: "It is a quiet period on the bird racing calendar and sales will be affected because pigeons are not being allowed to attend shows."