ROOSTING pigeons were shot by council marksmen who used high-powered air rifles to mount a cull of the birds.

A number of shocked passers-by looked on as the Bolton Council workers targeted pigeons perched in the canopies of Farnworth Market.

Town Hall bosses said today that 40 pigeons were killed.

A spokesman said the cull was a last resort which had been authorised by the police.

But members of the public who saw the shooting have branded the exercise as inhuman. Margaret Murray, aged 62, of Highfield Road, Farnworth, said: "I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was absolutely disgusting.

"There were children walking past who saw the whole thing and were in tears.

Another eyewitness said: "It was about 8am and I was walking to work past the market when I saw a man holding a gun.

"I just panicked, I didn't know what he was up to. Then I saw another man with a gun and realised they were shooting the pigeons.

"I was worried for my safety. People were still walking through the market. I don't think most of them knew what was going on.

"I saw two little girls walking through with their mums who were in tears. I think the council should have notified people beforehand to let them know what was going on."

Bolton Council says the cull was carried out at the request of market management and traders who were concerned about pigeons roosting in the canopies and the associated risk to public health from droppings.

The shooting started at around 6am on Wednesday and was still continuing at 8am.

It was carried out by members of the council's pest control team.

Farnworth councillor James Lord has previously backed calls for a cull after the town's pigeon problem was raised at the last Farnworth and Kearsley Area Forum.

He believes the number of pigeons in the precinct had got out of control and said the "flying vermin" and their droppings were spoiling efforts to tidy up the town centre.

Cllr Lord said: "They're a pest and a health hazard. The council gets a lot of complaints about the mess they cause."

Bolton Council said today that more culls could be carried out to further control the pigeon population.

A spokesman said: "After surveying the site it became apparent that culling the pigeons was the only way to deal with the problem effectively.

"A full risk assessment was carried out prior to the cull, the police were contacted and the appropriate permission sought.

"It was decided to carry out the operation at 6am on a day when the market is not open in order to ensure there was no risk to the public or traders.

"The officers are trained in various methods of pest control including marksmanship. They dispatched the birds at close range using a .22 air rifle which fires small metal pellets. Death would have been instant.

"We anticipate further work may need to be carried out in the future."

A spokesman for the RSPCA said: "We would always encourage organisations to seek more humane methods than a cull to control the population of pigeons.

"If a cull is the only option and the correct authorisation has been sought, we would urge them to carry it out in as humane a way as possible."