The strange tale of the bird ladies of Sellafield
By Linda Pentz Gunter
Growing up, I loved hearing Tom Lehrer sing “Poisoning the Pigeons in the Park.” Not that I wished harm on the innocent birds. In fact I was something of an aspiring birder at the time. I just enjoyed Lehrer’s dark humor.
But the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing facility, on England’s northwest coast, made that song a reality. Sellafield was poisoning pigeons routinely with its radioactive releases. It was just that, for a while, no one knew it.
Not until, that is, two middle-aged twin sisters, living in the nearby small town of Seascale, began overpopulating their garden with pigeons. Jane and Barrie Robinson fed and cared for the birds out of love. They called their place the Singing Surf pigeon sanctuary.
But the neighbors weren’t so happy about it. Adhering to to the usual pigeon cliché about “flying rats”, and fearing a health hazard from all the droppings, they called authorities on the bird ladies of Sellafield. And the strange tale began to unfold.
It was February 1998, and an inspector from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) came to the Robinson home. Concerned that the birds might be radioactive, given their habit of roosting on the Sellafield roofs, he collected and culled 150 pigeons, who were taken to the reprocessing center for testing. The findings sparked alarming headlines.
“Sellafield scare over radioactive pigeons”, blared The Independent, a national broadsheet newspaper at the time (now online only.) The article said that “a radiation scare” was underway and that “urgent analysis of the dead birds is being carried out.”
The Robinson pigeons showed “significant” levels of radiation. The rattled RSPCA inspector was tested for his own exposure and the group said that in future its staff would wear hazmat suits when handling animals in the Sellafield area.
Another 200 birds were culled and eventually 2,000. The Robinson’s garden was deemed a radioactive waste site and had to be excavated and removed for disposal, taken to the nearby Drigg radioactive waste dump, along with the tarmac driveway. All the garden furniture went, too. Eventually the UK government was forced to issue a ban on handling or eating pigeons within a 10-mile radius of Sellafield.
The Singing Surf sanctuary fell silent.
Of course, the pigeon scare was not the first time radiation exposure had raised concerns in the region. Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment had long been watchdogging Sellafield and calling out its inadequate response to accidents and leaks at the facility, as well as the harm it was doing to health and the environment.
The health impacts had been brought into stark focus by a 1991 study by MJ Gardner, who found elevated rates of leukemia among local children.
Gardner noted that “Cohort studies indicated that the excess of leukemia was concentrated among children born in Seascale and was not found among those moving in after birth and suggested that any causal factors may be acting before birth or very early in life.”
The study’s most startling revelation was a connection between the “raised incidence of leukemia in children and father’s recorded external radiation dose during work at Sellafield before his child’s conception.”
But back to the pigeon story and fast forward to June 2, 2010, when it goes from bizarre to worse.
A 52-year old man called Derrick Bird — yes, that was his name — went on a mass shooting rampage. This was an unusual event in the UK then and now. The first person Bird killed was his own twin brother, David. Then he killed another twin, Jane Robinson, one of the two bird ladies of Sellafield.
Before he was done, Bird had slaughtered 12 people, and wounded 11, before taking his own life. Other than the killing of his twin, the victims appeared to have been chosen at random.
According to a BBC story on the murders, “The coffin of animal lover Jane Robinson was adorned with a pigeon made of dyed grey chrysanthemums and birds’ feathers.”
Bird kills bird woman whose birds were killed….it doesn’t get much stranger.