Pigeon racing grew up in the industrial areas of Britain where it was known as ‘poor man’s horse racing’, and was enjoyed by the working class man. Today, the sport is enjoyed by people from varied social backgrounds including professors, doctors, vets, school teachers and business owners as well as tradesmen, lorry drivers and gravediggers! Even her Majesty the Queen, patron of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, has a loft at Sandringham where she continues a long line of Royal participation going back to her great grandfather.
Fanciers across the UK keep their pigeons in specially designed lofts. These vary from small structures housing perhaps a dozen birds to larger premises where hundreds of pigeons are kept for both racing and breeding purposes. Members compete against each other racing in clubs. Apart from his pigeons a fancier will require a special timing clock. The secret of the race is traditionally a small rubber band that is placed around the pigeon’s leg. Club members will enter their pigeons into a race and after being ‘race rubbered’ the pigeons go into a basket on a special air-conditioned transporter constructed to carry racing panniers. The transporters travel to a fixed starting point for the race (the liberation site).
When the fancier has taken his pigeons to the club he will also have taken his timing clock and all the members’ clocks are synchronised. Because the club members may live anywhere in a town the finishing point is varied depending on where the fancier lives so each pigeon is racing a different distance. At an agreed time the pigeons are released a transport official at the liberation site and the pigeons race home. When the pigeon arrives back at the loft the fancier has to take the rubber band from the pigeon’s leg and place the band in the timing clock. As he does, so he ‘strikes’ the clock thus recording the arrival time of the pigeon.
The winner of a race is calculated by dividing the distance from the liberation site to the loft divided by time it has taken for the pigeon to fly home. This gives the pigeon its velocity and the bird with the fastest speed is declared the winner. Pigeons can cover astonishing distances at speeds in excess of sixty miles per hour; top racers can therefore achieve more than five hundred miles in one day. Traditionally the sport covers two main routes; north road racers fly their birds south from places such as Thurso and Lerwick, whereas south road liberation points can be as far away as Pau in Southern France and Barcelona in Spain
The role of the fancier is that of breeder, trainer, dietician and race manager. Whilst a pigeon has an innate homing ability this needs to be developed and honed to perfection to achieve the required results. How do they do it? The scientists tell us that racing pigeons use a combination of their natural ability to home that of using their magnetic compass, their solar compass, following landmarks and also using their sense of smell.
The racing season is April through to July for ‘old birds’ that is, pigeons that have raced at least one season previously. August to early October is the young bird season, for pigeons that have been bred that year. A racing pigeon will compete until it is about 6 years old then a fancier will retire the pigeon to breeding duties.
Today, in this modern age, pigeons can now be timed in electronically; so instead of using the rubber band we can use a plastic ring with an electronic chip in it attached to the bird’s leg. When the pigeon arrives back at the loft it passes over a sensor pad which records the time the pigeon has ‘clocked in’. So, a bit like going through the checkout at the supermarket!
The Avian Influenza restrictions imposed by DEFRA have caused much consternation over the last couple of years; with racing and bird gatherings being curtailed at times. This is despite the fact that racing pigeons pose a very low risk of either catching bird flu or indeed shedding the infection to other species.
Nearly a quarter of a million racing pigeons were used in World War 2 for message carrying and every RAF bomber and reconnaissance aircraft that left our shores carried 2 homing pigeons. They were also dropped by parachute to Resistance workers on the continent.
Such was the role played by pigeons that 32 of the 53 Dickin medals, commonly known as the Animal VC, awarded after the war went to these feathered heroes. Their exploits can be seen at the Pigeons in War display at Bletchley Park, near Milton Keynes.
Our annual Show of the Year held at Blackpool each January, known as the ‘Crufts of the pigeon world’ attracts around 25,000 visitors every year making it Blackpool’s busiest weekend of the year. All the profits from the show are donated to charity and in January 2008 we will exceed the £2,000,000 donation level since the show started in 1973.
Whether it is at Blackpool in the showing category, or racing, there is a unique camaraderie amongst pigeon fanciers tempered by a strong competitive spirit. Having nurtured their team from the egg, fanciers develop a strong bond with their birds and hours of enjoyment can be had just spending time with their pigeons. Pigeons are such intelligent and intuitive creatures that it is difficult not to be fascinated by how they find their way home from hundreds of miles away.
The Royal Pigeon Racing Association
Tel: 01452 713529