Can pigeon racing take flight among the young? Bill Bridge meets a man determined to make it happen.
Like so many of us who have reached a certain age, Brian Mead has difficulty comprehending the tastes and mind-sets of today's MP3 generation. But, unlike so many of us, he refuses to allow their perceived indifference to threaten the demise of a passion which has sustained him over six decades.
It would be easy to pigeon-hole him and his obsession as an anachronism, to be filed away with Brylcreem, battery-driven wirelesses, cigarette cards and hot-water bottles. To do so would be to denigrate something which has been part of the fabric of Yorkshire – and many other
parts of the country – for a century and more. Pigeon racing is the name of the game and Brian Mead, at 71, is a man with a mission.
Pigeon fanciers are a declining breed. Membership of recognised clubs and federations is falling by about five per cent annually and the reason for that, says Mr Mead, is simple: today's youngsters have little appreciation of what is going on around them.
They don't know where milk comes from, think potatoes grow on trees and couldn't tell a sparrow from a starling; it is all so different to the days when he was growing up in the shadow of Denaby colliery in South Yorkshire. "Then you would cross two villages just to look at a friend's new rabbit. Today's young people want instant gratification," he says.
But Mr Mead spends most of his waking hours – when he is not tending the 100 or so pigeons in his loft at his home near Conisbrough – working on improving the understanding of what it means to be a fancier and, step by step, introducing new techniques into the old game which might just encourage enough young people take an interest.
But it would be wrong to pin all the blame for declining interest in pigeon racing on the young; some of the older generation are not exactly supportive.
Take one of the fundamentals of pigeon racing: making an exact record of the time an individual bird has taken to finish a race, thereby enabling the calculation to be made (distance divided by time) which determines its velocity, the end result. On that reading hangs prize money, side-bets and not a little pride.
For years the reading was made using a rubber ring bearing the pigeon's identification number which was "clocked" on a Saturday-evening ritual which for many men and boys was the defining moment of their week. Later came electronic and eventually computer "clocking" but now technology has spawned a system similar to that used at supermarket check-outs.
A bird is "checked in" automatically when it arrives at its home loft and the fancier has only to take the disc to his club officials and the results are printed off in an instant. There are spin-offs which you might imagine would attract those whose idea of a Saturday treat does not include sitting by the loft waiting for your birds to fly home from 200 or more miles away. "You don't have to be tied down," says Mr Mead. "You can just leave it to the birds, as soon as they are back to the loft they walk over the check-in plate. There used to be a lot of pigeon widows – their men would not dream of leaving the loft until their birds had been clocked in – and it was not uncommon for divorces to be blamed on pigeon racing."
Pigeon-driven divorces are less frequent these days, but the new system has not gone down well among some loft owners. "We have an 'anti-brigade'," says Mr Mead. "Most fanciers are aged 50 or more and not all are computer-oriented. They are not willing to learn, to take on new things; they don't want to understand. It has been a battle but we are winning it now, taking a step further into the young person's world."
There are other ways forward. One which proved a huge success is a one-off race involving about 1,000 birds donated by fanciers specifically to be reared and trained at a site near Worcester then released for the flight of their lives with 10,000 for the winning owner and a substantial further prize-fund.
The Queen – an enthusiastic fancier and president of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association – sent one bird for last year's race from her loft at Sandringham, and it was "adopted" by Mossbrook School in Sheffield, one of several schools who applied, to be allocated a pigeon by
The children called their bird "Blue Beth" in honour of Her Majesty and she finished 11th overall in the race, worth 500 in prize-money, as well as being the highest-placed pigeon racing in the name of a school, which produced another 350 for Mossbrook's bank account. Mr Mead and others similarly determined to spread the gospel of pigeon racing make frequent visits to schools.
"We don't try to recruit them," emphasises Mr Mead. "We tell them what it's all about then answer their questions, like 'how do you get the pigeons to line up at the tape before the start of the race?' More often than not the teachers are just as inquisitive as the children."
They could have few better qualified tutors than Brian Mead. He had his first racing pigeon at the age of 11 and confesses: "My life revolves round this game. I don't know whether I could say it has kept me going but it has been a great life, I certainly wouldn't change it." He has been involved in the administration of the Derbyshire and South Yorkshire region since 1969, became a member of the RPRA Council in 1982 and has been, along with his wife Margaret, regional joint secretary since 1984. His speciality for years was in breeding birds to win the lost-distance races, from places like Falaiase and St Malo, even, on occasion, from Pau, much further south, a flight home of over 700 miles for his pigeons. While the numbers of fanciers gradually declines and smaller federations merge, there is still remarkable resilience among pigeon racing folk, a message confirmed when several Geordie federations get together. They form an alliance called "The Up North Combine" which can have up to 30,000 birds competing in the same race.
Further evidence that any obituary for pigeon racing would be at best premature is the continuing success of the sport's show weekend at Blackpool's Winter Gardens every January. "The taxi drivers say it is their best weekend of the year and the bed-and-breakfast owners tell us it pays their tax for the year," says Mr Mead, who is one of the organisers of a festival of all things to do with racing pigeons which annually raises over 100,000 for charity.
Fanciers show up to 2,500 birds, trade stands fill the Winter Gardens and the Lord Mayor of Blackpool thanks the pigeon world for descending on the town.
And the gathering would surprise any who might think pigeon racing is a solely English condition. "We have guests from many European countries, from the United States, Taiwan, China, Australia, Malta, all over the world," says Mr Mead, who was among those who pioneered the show in Doncaster in 1973. The event moved to Blackpool in 1977 and remains a highlight of the year for Brian and Margaret Mead whose love affair with racing pigeons has also brought them invitations to the Queen's Garden Party at Buckingham Palace and dinner in the House of Commons.
There are plenty of miles left yet for those who love nothing more than seeing one of their birds arriving at the loft. "It is a wonderful, rewarding feeling, seeing a bird you have bred, nurtured and trained come home," says Mr Mead. "It is what we strive for and I have always said that the day I don't have that feeling will be the time to give up."
With his missionary work barely started and his young birds ready for the summer races, that will not be for some time yet.
Animal magnetism – the pigeon's secret
Pigeons have been used by man to carry messages for centuries – the Roman historian Pliny mentions them as messengers at the Siege of Mutina in 43BC – and their homing ability has attracted considerable research.
Scientists today believe that homing (racing) pigeons use a range of skills to find their way home. The two most common theories are that pigeons use their magnetic and solar compasses to navigate. The earth's surface has magnetic contours and it is widely believed that the pigeon is able to follow these. They also use the sun, and fanciers ensure that pigeons see the movement of the sun before they are released on race days.
Other scientists also believe that pigeons follow landmarks such as roads and rivers and Oxford University has done significant research into this technique. The pigeon also uses its sense of smell through its wattle (the white crusty bit on its beak). The racing pigeon has to use a combination of these attributes to successfully fly home. A quarter of a million pigeons were used in the Second World War effort, which proves their reliability, and they were also successfully used in the NHS, from Plymouth Hospital flying blood samples across the city to a laboratory in the 1980s.
Identifying a "golden age" of pigeon racing is difficult because up until the 1980s if you were in two clubs you paid two membership fees, so it rather inflated the figures of actual members.
The Royal Pigeon Racing Association calculate that halving of those figures would provide a reasonable estimate; in 1988 they had 122,550 members and in 1989 there were 61,379 on single member subscriptions.
The highest number in any one year was 1981 with 131,797.
Another guide to membership numbers are the number of pigeon rings sold each year. In 1928, the RPRA sold 1,347,813 when membership was 64,305 but that figure dropped to 419,950 in 1942 when there were
31,064 members. Again, numbers reached a peak in 1981 with 1,844,000 ring sales.