PIGEON fanciers have welcomed the lifting of a ban aimed at preventing bird flu from spreading to hum-ans.

The temporary ban, announced by the European Union at the end of October, was introduced as a precaution against the spread of the potentially deadly disease and prevented bird gatherings, including sales and pigeon races.

After keeping it under review, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has lifted UK inland restrictions, to the delight of the North-East Homing Union, which has 6,000 members.

Last month, it had to cancel its annual show in South Shields, South Tyneside, which was expected to attract up to 2,000 people.

Union secretary Davey Power welcomed the news, which he said was an early Christmas present.

He said: "We could have gone ahead with our show, but it would have been like Crufts without dogs or the Chelsea Flower Show without flowers.

"We are delighted the ban has been lifted here. It is good news, although there is still a requirement for a general licence for these type of events.

"We have been able to explain our side of it. All the pigeon racing unions were invited for meetings in London with Defra officials.

"We are very strict on disinfecting, biosecurity measures and there has never been a case of a pigeon having caught bird flu. We are very low risk."

There had been fears that if the ban were to continue, it could hit the start of the pigeon racing season in April.

However, restrictions still apply to continental racing in which pigeons are released abroad to fly home.

Aside from pigeons, events involving birds of prey were also affected by the ban.

One of the region's main falconry centres, the Sion Hill Falconry Centre, near Thirsk, North Yorkshire, said it had not been affected because it was allowing its birds to rest during off-peak months.