Will pigeon racing take off amongst a new generation to keep the sport in the air?

Pigeons can match maximum motorway speeds if the conditions are favourable
Pigeons can match maximum motorway speeds if the conditions are favourable
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After 65 years in pigeon racing, David Pimlott is as captivated by the sport as ever.

“You get a real buzz every time you send the birds away to a race,” says David, who still races under the name Pimlott Brothers in memory of his late sibling.

Pigeon racing veterans David Pimlott and Jim Kenny

Pigeon racing veterans David Pimlott and Jim Kenny

“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, from Banks, is one of hundreds of fanciers who flocked from across Lancashire and the North West to Midge Hall near Leyland to register their birds for this year’s Gold Ring Spectacular.

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 in Lancashire before the vehicles which took them to the south coast.

One of the birds waiting to be ringed for the race

One of the birds waiting to be ringed for the race

With the event in its twentieth 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 Lancashire 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 Lancashire is seeing a similar slide in numbers.

Deputy leader of Lancashire County Council, Keith Iddon, has been racing pigeons since he was just seven years old and has helped out with the Gold Ring event since it began.

County Cllr Keith Iddon - away from County Hall, he spends his spare time planning - and taking part in - pigeon races

County Cllr Keith Iddon - away from County Hall, he spends his spare time planning - and taking part in - pigeon races

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

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

Ian Dagnall and Marcin Gorker had high hopes for the race as they brought their birds to be registered

Ian Dagnall and Marcin Gorker had high hopes for the race as they brought their birds to be registered

“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 percent is down to the trainer knowing when to increase the range and 30 percent down to the ability of the bird,” reckons Marcin Gorker, whom Ian has helped to prepare 11 birds for the Gold 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 Lancashire.

Father and son team Brian and Gary Smith

Father and son team Brian and Gary Smith

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

"If you breed early in the season, you can have the entrants to a race like this paired up by now, so they’re flying back to reach a female sitting on eggs - or to a young one. It’s all motivation - anything to get an edge."

But the competitive nature of the sport does not crowd out the good nature which many at the event said was one of its hallmarks. The "good lucks" and "well dones" seem to bear testimony to that.

However, the fact remains that 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 Gold Ring race is around £22,000.

But organiser Alan Bamford, from Lancashire-based 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 (sic) of all.

AND THE WINNER IS...

Mist and a lack of wind combined to create difficult conditions for this year's Gold Ring Spectacular. Twenty-four hours after the pigeons were set free, many an owner was waiting for at least some of their birds to return. One bird turned up in Hull - on the wrong side of the country and 120 miles away from its home.

Even six decades in the sport is no guarantee of success in any individual race.

"So far I've only got eight back out of 18 birds which I sent to the two events over the weekend - but that's pigeon racing," reflects David Pimlott.

He has not given up hope of seeing the rest of the flock again - one of his fellow fanciers recently had a bird return more than six weeks after it was released for a race in Ludlow.

"It's not just the weather you have to worry out, it's other birds like peregrine falcons. If they rip through the middle of a flock flying together, the pigeons just forget about homing - all they want to do is get away. Some eventually return home badly injured."

The victorious bird in the Gold Ring race returned to a loft in Leyland - just a few miles from where all the pigeons were registered for the race - in a little over four hours, having achieved a speed of 1,400 yards per minute (or 47mph).

Its owner, Paul Johnson, has only recently returned to the pigeon world after a gap of 40 years - because his job meant he did not have the time needed to dedicate to the sport.

The now retied 68-year-old says he is "buzzing" after his win, for which he scooped over £1,400.

"The trophy actually means more than the money," says Paul, who also paid tribute to the generosity of fellow members of his club in Leyland for donating birds to help him get back into the sport.

"All the flyers gave me two birds to start me off and one chap in particular, Frank Cuthbertson, has really helped me out - he gave me good stock pigeons of his which I could breed from," Paul says.

Now that he has got the bug once again, Paul intends to continue pursuing his passion - and stands ready to make the sacrifices which the sport requires.

"My wife has been away in Lanzarote, but I couldn't go because it clashed with the race - although I think got he better deal with these winnings," he laughs.

A MAN'S GAME?

Female faces were few and far between as fanciers lined up to register their birds for this year's Gold Ring race.

But while there were tales aplenty of a love of the sport being passed from father to son, one veteran of the game says women are not only welcome - but are sometimes the secret to racing success.

"There are a fair few man and wife partnerships and some blokes will say that if it wasn’t for their other half, their birds would not be as good as they are," says Ian Dagnall.

"Having two people to share the burden of training is always better than having to do everything yourself."

The Royal Pigeon Racing Association's patron is also a woman - Her Majesty The Queen.

TRADITION AND TECHNOLOGY

It was up to each entrant to decide how they would register the time that their birds returned to the loft. Many opted for an electronic system which meant that their speed would automatically be calculated without the need for the owner to be present for the bird's return. But several were still using the tried and tested mechanical clocking-in device long associated with the sport.

Paul Johnson with prize-winning pigeon, "Leyland Lady"

Paul Johnson with prize-winning pigeon, "Leyland Lady"