The iconic yellow canary, a symbol of Easter and spring, has been a beloved pet and hobby bird for centuries. However, Brexit has threatened the future of a rare canary species bred in Britain. Canary breeders have warned that new rules impede the access to birds, particularly in the Netherlands and Belgium, where canary and budgie breeding is also popular. To travel between the UK and the EU, each bird must be tested and certified for five diseases, causing problems for hobbyists.
Breeder Donald Skinner-Reid, based in Edinburgh, explained the impact of these new rules: “To test the birds for these diseases, you have to do a swab of the vent and the throat. If you swab a canary’s throat, you kill it. So the vet might come back and say there is no disease – but your bird will be dead by then.” The rules have not only prevented Skinner-Reid from competing at the annual Gouden Ring show in Belgium but also limited sales to Northern Ireland, where EU rules still apply.
Skinner-Reid has urged the government to treat hobbyist breeders in the same way as dogs, cats, and ferrets, which were covered by the revised Northern Ireland protocol. He stated: “They have basically turned a hobby into an international export. In one fell swoop, they have sacrificed the entire hobby, and the people who are affected – working-class people, people who voted for Brexit, who voted to leave – are now finding that they can’t actually do anything because they can’t take their birds back and forth to mainland Europe.”
Robert Innes, editor of Cage and Aviary Birds magazine, estimated that there are “tens of thousands” of hobbyist breeders in the UK who preserve important historic British breeding lines, such as the Scots Fancy, Yorkshire, Fife, Norwich, and London canary. Many of the breeds date back to the 19th century and were exported to fellow bird fanciers in Europe, spreading the stock and ensuring gene pools for all bird-lovers across the EU.
“It is a total disaster, an absolute disaster for this historic hobby. It will within a few generations, it will imperil numerous historic British breeds of pedigree. … Their gene pool will be terribly badly impoverished if we can’t exchange stock with the continentals as we’ve been doing for decades,” Innes stated.
In addition to the new rules impacting hobbyists, one specialist courier, Walkers European Express Service, which was doing 150-200 consignments a week, was forced to close because of the new veterinary certification required for each bird. Zac Goldsmith acknowledged in 2021 that Brexit would have an impact, stating that the trade in birds was “important for the introduction of new bloodlines for conservation”, including the rare species of canary, particularly the Scots Fancy. However, no exceptions were made for non-commercial hobbyists.
Hobbyists, including Donald Skinner-Reid, have urged the government to treat them in the same way as dogs, cats, and ferrets, which are covered by the revised Northern Ireland protocol. Robert Innes, editor of Cage and Aviary Birds magazine, has warned that the lack of exceptions for non-commercial hobbyists could imperil numerous historic British breeds of pedigree.
The future of the canary breeding hobby in the UK is uncertain, and the government must take steps to support hobbyists and preserve this important cultural heritage. The proposed solution of importing a limited number of pedigree birds under the same rule as pets could be a way forward, providing hope for hobbyists to continue to enjoy and share their love for canaries and other bird breeds.