People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has called for authorities to ban cross-Channel pigeon racing because of reported avian influenza cases in China.

PETA has written to DEFRA claiming that allowing pigeon races across the Channel violates short-term export laws. The letter explains that authorities in China have banned all pigeon racing following the outbreak of the H7N9 strain of avian influenza, and Britain should too as a precautionary measure.

The letter says: “This virus was first detected in live pigeons. At least 24 people have been taken ill, seven [now nine] of whom have died.”

The letter adds that, during transportation and a race across continental Europe, “birds will come into contact with racing pigeons from other participating countries and with livestock on foreign farms and wildlife which may carry disease”.

PETA has previously campaigned for an end to cross-Channel pigeon racing, calling the practice cruel because birds have to cross open sea. It said that it had investigated one such race and found 90% of the birds had not returned to the UK after release on the continent.

“Aside from risking the pigeons’ lives, as evidenced by their high mortality rates, pigeon fanciers may be putting human health at risk by taking British pigeons across the Channel,” said PETA UK associate director Mimi Bekhechi. “We hope the government will take action now rather than wait and see if people get sick.”