Is feeding birds now a crime?

Is feeding the birds now a crime in the UK? Judging from the number of recent cases involving crust-scattering pensioners, the answer seems to be ‘yes’.

A woman in Blaenau Gwent in South Wales was fined £125 for throwing a piece of bread roll for the birds out of her car window. In another recent case, a woman in Sidmouth, Devon was fined for ‘littering peanuts while feeding pigeons’.

The Blaenau Gwent fine was issued by private security guards, who are paid on a commission basis and have a propensity to fine for negligible offences. (This is the same company that once issued a fine for a thread of cotton falling off a woman’s glove.)

But the Sidmouth fine was issued by council officials, concerned about the propensity of food to attract seagulls and other ‘vermin’ to the town, a seaside resort. This shows a growing intolerance, and a willingness to blame inconveniences such as seagulls by the sea on the ‘anti-social behaviour’ of particular individuals.

A series of bird-feeding pensioners have been issued with anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), specifying that they must not feed birds in their gardens, or within a designated area; and that they must not buy more than three loaves of bread a day. One of these pensioners – John Wilkinson – has just been released from prison, where he spent several weeks at Her Majesty’s pleasure for the crime of scattering bird feed.

Clearly, these individuals were devoting more than the normal amount of time and bread to feeding the birds; it may indeed have caused problems for their neighbours. But there is a difference between behaviour that is a bit of a nuisance, a bit eccentric, and a crime that should be prevented with the coercive powers of the state and incarceration.

With the war on bird feeding, we see how criminal justice no longer knows the difference between nuisance and crime. As Wilkinson complained: ‘My house has been attacked by vandals but the police don’t do anything.’ It sometimes seems that nuisance is far more interesting and compelling as a target for law-enforcers’ attentions than genuine crimes.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, which campaigns against the hyperregulation of everyday life. Visit the Manifesto Club website.

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