THEY ‘doo’ like to be the seaside – that’s 25,000 enthusiasts who will flock to Blackpool for the Crufts of the pigeon world this weekend.
This major event, The British Homing World Show of the Year, is the highlight of the year for pigeon fanciers and showcases a sport that involves racing and showing homer pigeons and is followed by none other than the Queen.
The top prize has been won four times in recent years by the same Scottish couple – and they hope to lift the prestigious Supreme Champion trophy for a fifth.
John and Alice Bell are up against stiff opposition with more than 3,000 pedigree racing pigeons and 2,000 show pigeons competing at the Winter Gardens, but they are confident their prize pigeon will rule the roost once more.
John, 51, has had pigeons since he was 10 and caught the bug from a neighbour in the Ayrshire village of Catrine who raced pigeons. He started off with two hens and two cocks and now has 60 birds in the ‘loft’ or shed in his back garden.
Despite working full time at a garden centre, he and his wife spend up to seven hours a day feeding, cleaning and tending their pampered pigeons, and they spend most weekends packing the car with boxes of pigeons and taking them to shows all over the country.
“I used to race pigeons but all the races are in the summer months and it was interfering with family holidays,” said John, who has a 23-year-old daughter, Nicole, 23 who is also a pigeon fancier.
“I was also fed up losing pigeons as they don’t always come back, so I went into show pigeons. It’s more sociable and is something you can do with the family. We all get great pleasure from it – the pigeons are affectionate and tame and they’re always happy to see you. Growing up, my daughter came to the shows with us and now she has her own pigeons. I’ll be competing against her this year.”
The Bells won the Supreme Champion trophy in 2007, 2011, 2014 and 2016 and are hopeful the same bird, a nine-year-old cock that won in 2011, will win this year, along with one of its sons.
“He’s the top dog in the loft,” John said “and has bred some winners as well as being the Scottish champion. We’ve won that competition four years in a row.”
Linda Bruce, secretary of the Scottish Homing Union, said: “It’s a really absorbing sport but it’s time-consuming as you have to look after the birds seven days a week. Over the last 30 years the number of members in Scotland has halved from 6,500.
“Racing pigeons was popular in mining communities. If you are down a pit all day, you want to come out into the sunshine and look at your birds flying in the sky. It’s also a sociable sport and most towns in Scotland have pigeon clubs. The age group is mostly middle-aged now but they take the sport very seriously and there’s a lot of competitiveness.”
While racing pigeons are lean, light and can often suffer feather damage, show pigeons are large, plump and glossy with pristine plumage. In the weeks before the show owners keep the lofts spotless, bringing in fresh water in basins so the birds can bathe, carefully wiping off any dirt with a soft cloth and handling the birds after putting talc on their hands or wearing gloves to keep feathers oil-free.
Ian Evans, Secretary of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association and manager of The British Homing World Show of the Year, said: “There are 40,000 pigeon fanciers in the UK. While it’s always been seen as a working man’s sport, it actually covers all levels of society with some really wealthy people and lots of women taking part. The Queen has racing pigeons, and her father and grandfather before her.”
FIVE FASCINATING PIGEON FACTS
•The homing pigeon was the most decorated animal during World War II. A pigeon called Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for heroic service during World War I after it was shot in the chest and leg but continued its flight to get the message home through shrapnel and poison gas.
•Pablo Picasso was such a pigeon fancier that he called his daughter ‘Paloma’, Spanish for pigeon. Other famous pigeon fanciers include tough Scottish footballer Duncan Ferguson, former boxer Mike Tyson, and the Queen, who has 240 birds at the Royal Pigeon Lofts in Sandringham.
•Racing pigeons can be bought for as little as £15 but can fetch much more. Recently a champion racing pigeon was sold in America for a record $1.3m. A British company that breeds racing pigeons bought him as a stud.
•The Rothschild family set up a network of pigeon lofts throughout Europe and used homing pigeons to carry information between its financial houses. The speed of service kept them ahead of the competition and helped them amass a fortune.
•A champion pigeon can be released 400 miles from home and still return the same day. No one knows how pigeons make their way back, although it’s thought they navigate using landmarks in known territory. Another theory is they have an internal compass and use the earth’s magnetic field.
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