Pigeon racing ... does this traditional pastime take your fancy?

After 65 years in pigeon racing, David Pimlott is as captivated by the sport as ever.

Tuesday, 3rd September 2019, 12:35 pm
Pigeon racing was once a common event in St Helens but not today

“You get a real buzz every time you send the birds away to a race,” he says.

“When you’re sat there at your loft waiting for them to arrive back and then suddenly you see them come in, you can’t get out of your chair quick enough.”

David is one of hundreds of fanciers who flocked from across the North West to Midge Hall near Leyland to register their birds for this year’s Golden Ring Spectacular.

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The annual race, staged across the bank holiday weekend, saw almost 700 birds dropped off in South Ribble before being transported over 200 miles to Portsmouth to be ‘liberated’ - and fly off to find their own way home.

Because ‘home’ is closer to the start line for some entrants than others, the winner is determined by identifying the bird which achieved the fastest speed over the distance travelled.

If the wind is in their favour, some pigeons can reach speeds of 70mph - and would easily be back before the vehicles which took them to the south coast.

With the event in its 20th year and dozens of competitors queuing up to enter anything up to 15 birds, the sport gives the impression of being in fine fettle.

But as those taking part turned their eyes to the skies to wait for the winning bird to return home, the organisers were turning their eyes to the future - and the fear that this traditional local pastime could be on borrowed time if a new generation is not soon attracted to it.

Membership of the nationwide Royal Pigeon Racing Association has been in decline from a peak of 60,000 members in the late 1980s - and is seeing a similar slide in numbers in this area.

Keith Iddon has been racing pigeons since he was just seven years old and has helped out with the Golden Ring event since it began.

“In the village where I grew up, there were a couple of dozen fanciers - it was a very common hobby back in the day.

“But now there are fewer young people taking it up, which is a shame, because it’s a great sport. And, unless that changes, the numbers will really start to shrink,” Keith predicts.

He is calling on the county’s schools to foster an interest in pigeon fancying amongst their pupils.

An initiative in East Lancashire has had some success in recent years, but the idea has not taken off in other parts of the country.

According to racing veteran Ian Dagnall there would be no shortage of help on offer from the pigeon fancying community if schools wanted to set up their own loft.

“The local amalgamations (groups of clubs which race each other) would, I’m sure, lend the timing facilities and even provide them with some young birds to start them off.

“But it can be an expensive hobby and it’s often thought of as a retired man’s sport, because they have the time to invest,” Ian explains.

That time is needed for training, which gradually builds up the distance that a bird is taken from its base before being released and left to rely on what is thought to be an innate homing instinct - involving magnetic and solar forces - to find its way back.

“About 70 per cent is down to the trainer knowing when to increase the range and 30 per cent down to the ability of the bird,” reckons Marcin Gorker, whom Ian has helped to prepare 11 birds for the Golden Ring race.

“The health of the pigeon is also vital. They are like people - if you try to do a marathon and you’re not healthy, you’ll be finished after two miles.

“As a trainer, you also get to know each bird and can identify them even though they look the same as each other,” adds Marcin, who says that pigeon racing in his native Poland is more popular among younger generations like his than it is in the region.

Pigeons are now changing hands for increasingly inflated prices depending on their pedigree - ranging from £50 through to thousands.

The world’s most expensive pigeon sold for £1.4m earlier this year.

“You fly according to your pocket,” explains Gary Smith, who travelled from Cheshire with his father Brian to register for the race.

“And you can still beat the guys spending thousands,” adds Brian, with a degree of relish.

Each bird - barely six months’ old in most cases - holds the keys to cash and kudos for its owner should it be the fastest home.

The total prize pool for the Golden Ring race is around £22,000.

But organiser Alan Bamford, from animal feed manufacturer Bamford’s, says the most important aspect to the event as it enters its third decade is to provide a showcase for the sport.

“The great thing about pigeon racing is that it’s open to anybody - and everybody competes on an equal footing,” Alan explains.

That is not to say the pursuit is without its disappointments - birds can be lost to animal or human prey - or quite simply lost - during both training and races.

But for those who love this 125-year-old sport, attracting more people to its highs and lows would be the biggest ‘coo’ of all.