Blackpool is no stranger to beauty contests and this weekend sees the biggest of them all.
More than 2,000 birds will be primped and preened ready for judging, with 32 being selected Best in Class, and one named as Supreme Champion of Great Britain.
This Saturday and Sunday The Winter Gardens will host the 41st British Homing World Show of the Year, the highlight of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association’s calendar.
Dubbed the ‘Crufts’ of the pigeon world, it is one of the biggest events to be staged in the resort, drawing more than 25,000 visitors and estimated to be worth around £11m in revenue across the town.
Fanciers from across the UK and beyond come to show their birds and pick up trophies from races won throughout the year at the Gala Dinner on Saturday evening at The Tower Ballroom.
Fund-raising is the main focus of the show which has raised more than £2.6m since its inception.
This year, five main charities will benefit from the proceeds of entry to the show, numerous raffles and the gala auction – the British pigeon fanciers medical research society, Age UK, SHINE (for Spina Bifida and hydrocephalus), the British Heart Foundation and St John’s Ambulance, plus smaller donations to another 16 good causes.
Big business will be also be done over the two days, in an industry where pedigree racers and their offspring can change hands for thousands of pounds.
And 150 suppliers from as far afield as China and Germany will be showcasing products from identification rings and bird feed, to mahogany lofts and HGV transporters.
“The majority of visitors are from around the UK and Ireland, but we often see people from Belgium, France, Germany, Malta, Eastern Europe, and even China where we see the sport starting to take off,” said Stewart Wardrop, general manager of the RPRA.
“The event is a great showcase for the sport and a fantastic social occasion for everyone involved.
“Many fanciers look forward to it all year and really enjoying the opportunity of catching up with members from other clubs in different parts of the country.
“It’s also the time for breeders to buy and sell birds and we could see some large transactions taking place as pedigree racers can sell for around £750-£1,000, although the top birds can go for as much as £10,000.
“That may seem a large sum but when you consider prize money from some of the bigger UK races can be up to £25,000, and there is the million dollar race in South Africa, it looks like a good investment.”
Although waning in popularity in recent years, pigeon racing was widespread in the 1970s and 80s.
Results of big races were featured in the national newspapers and pedigree birds were the favourite of top flight footballers, the most famous being former Crystal Palace and England midfielder Gerry Francis.
Often associated with the flat cap and whippets stereotype of the Northern working class, the membership of the RPRA is far broader than might be anticipated.
“We have 28,000 members from Lands End to John O’Groats, and everywhere in between, including doctors and lawyers, and our patron is The Queen who has her own lofts at Sandringham” said Stewart.
“In the past it might have been predominately a northern pastime, particularly in its 1970s heyday, but now we have a much wider participation.”
The history of the sport and its association with working class culture forms part of a television documentary being presented by actor Robson Green, who grew up with pigeons as his father had a loft.
The RPRA and its members have been involved with the production of the programme, set to air in the Spring, and the star is popping by the show on Saturday to meet some of the association’s young fanciers.
His visit is just one of events it is hoped will attract young people and novices to the show as part of the RPRA’s drive to encourage new members into the sport.
Activities topping the bill for junior enthusiasts will be two ‘question and answer’ sessions by top fanciers Frank Bristow and Mark Gilbert, and the Young Fanciers Best in Class competition
Stewart added: “We have an active junior section and would like to see more young people getting involved.
“In some parts of Europe, for example, pigeon racing is very much a young person’s game.
“It has grown in popularity as it’s inexpensive to set up and anyone can get started.
“It’s very satisfying to see your training pay off, and the financial rewards of winning races can be huge.
“For the sport to survive it needs new blood and now is a great time to take it up as we’re at a threshold of a new beginning.
“Technology is improving at such a rate that it won’t be long before we’ll have live tracking of birds which will make it even more of a spectator sport, which in turn is likely to increase its appeal in betting circles.
“The greater the interest, the more money will be invested. And we’ve all got our eyes on China where it is thought that pigeon racing is on the brink of going stellar.”
Saturday, Winter Gardens
9am – doors open
10am – Young Fanciers Show Class judging
10am-noon – Robson Green signing autographs
11am – Frank Bristow Q&A with Young Fanciers
11.30-2pm – charity auction
2pm – Mark Gilbert Q&A with young fanciers
4pm – Presentation of awards
5pm – doors close
Saturday, Tower Ballroom
7.30pm – Gala Dinner
Sunday, Winter Gardens
9am – doors open
1pm –- Raffle draw and champion pigeon draw
2.30pm – doors close
* Tickets are available on the door, entry is £7 on Saturday, £6 on Sunday and children under 16 go free.