What does the future hold for pigeon racing? The sport born in a Leeds pub

PIC: Bruce Rollinson
PIC: Bruce Rollinson
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Like dominoes and darts, pigeon racing is a Great British pastime. But with fanciers claiming the historic sport is under threat Sarah Freeman finds feathers are flying. Pictures by Bruce Rollinson.

Ask Simon Schofield what his proudest moment has been in 37 years of pigeon racing and he doesn’t hesitate. “I once owned the pigeon world’s answer to Usain Bolt,” he says slightly wistfully from his loft on the outskirts of Leeds. While he might not have had the showiest of names, in the mid-1990s Champion 37 ruled the roost in this part of Yorkshire and beyond. “He was a sprint pigeon. And he was simply the best. He won so many races and I don’t think I’ll ever have another bird like him.”

When Champion 37 met a natural end his 51-year-old owner reflected on a life well lived. However, many more of his flock have not been so lucky and with Simon claiming attacks by peregrine falcons are on the up he – and others – fear for the future of the historic sport.

“Year after year we are losing more and more birds. I would say in the last six or seven years it’s probably increased tenfold and it has to be linked to the rise of bird of prey breeding programmes.

“A few years ago, species like peregrine falcons were deemed to be under threat and there was a movement to attempt to swell their declining numbers. However, instead of siting the new nests in the countryside, which is the bird’s natural habitat, they chose instead to put them on the side of buildings close to inner cities.

“You can’t expect to mess with the natural world and it not to come back to bite you. There was one five-week period last year when I couldn’t let any of my birds out because I could see raptors were hanging about. They are not stupid, they know where a ready-made source of food is.”

The pigeon racing season runs from April to September and Simon says this year is looking equally grim.

“Some people advise hanging out CDs because the reflective surface distorts their vision or using a decoy eagle owl. I’ve tried both, but they only work in the short term. Eventually the birds of prey get used to them and ignore them.

“I have around 150 pigeons, which is a pretty big set-up and each year we lose about a third. For those who have just a handful of birds it’s just not worth the risk and many are thinking of giving up altogether. If we don’t do something soon then in another 10 years pigeon racing could well be dead and buried in Britain.”

The problem is not just confined to Leeds. Peregrine falcons and the like have been reintroduced up and down the country and as birds of prey they are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Conversely the birds owned by the UK’s 60,000 pigeon fanciers have no legal protection.

A couple of years ago, the Law Commission indicated that it was considering legal changes which would allow individual fanciers to make applications so problem raptors could be relocated, but in the end nothing was done.

“Leeds was the birthplace of pigeon racing and I am really passionate that something is done because if it isn’t we will all regret it,” says Simon. “My dad was a pigeon racer and so was his dad. We lived on a council estate and a whole gang of us grew up racing pigeons, it was just what we did. We would have our own mini races and at 13 I joined my first pigeon club. From that point on, it sort of took on a life of its own.

“I know people probably think it’s a bit old- fashioned, but that’s a view of people who have never tried it. Pigeon racing isn’t a hobby, it’s part of my life and the same is true for so many people. One of my friends is in his 70s. He has been racing pigeons all his life and now it’s the only thing which gets him out of the house, it is his one enjoyment in life. However, so many of his birds have been attacked that he has begun to wonder whether it’s worth carrying on.”

A million racing pigeons are bred each year in the UK and it is big business. While a bog standard bird costs around £50, a fully fledged champion will set you back four figures and in 2012 a Chinese businessman paid $300,000 for a single pigeon.

“It’s imperative that we investigate ways of controlling and managing the increasing population of predatory birds humanely while also ensuring they are not introduced to unsuitable locations,” says Lee Fribbins from the Raptor Alliance which lobbies on behalf of British pigeon fanciers. “We are currently liaising with those individuals who have been affected by attacks and we want to engage with local councils so that we can look at the problem together and find solutions.

“Racing pigeons provide great company for 
their owners and what many people don’t realise is that it contributes almost £107m to the UK economy each year – two good reasons why we want to make sure this Great British pastime isn’t lost forever.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly a spokesman for the RSPB disputes the claims and says that if anything the population of sparrowhawks has in fact declined over the last 20 years and there have been no specific breeding programmes centred on Yorkshire cities.

“We can understand how losing a racing pigeon can be upsetting and frustrating,” the spokesman said. “Pigeon racing is, at its heart, challenging the pigeons to find their way home against adversity. The gradual recovery of the UK’s birds of prey is one of those natural challenges, but the evidence shows this is far from the greatest threat.

“In fact, independent studies have shown that birds of prey are responsible for less than one in five of the racing pigeons that do not make it home, a figure which can be reduced further with simple steps such as using visual deterrents around lofts and altering race routes.

“Until as recently as 50 years ago, many of the UK’s birds of prey, including the sparrowhawk and peregrine falcon, were near extinction. With changes in legislation and how we as a nation have come to appreciate our birds of prey, the populations of many species are slowly returning. Which is why we are starting to see more of these magnificent birds as they naturally start to return to their historic territories, including those which have been built upon in the intervening years.”

Simon is not convinced. “The dawn chorus has been silenced in many towns and cities and there is a reason for that. It’s not just pigeons these raptors are attacking, but songbirds are also being preyed on. When I was a child song thrushes were a common sight, but I can’t remember the last time I saw one.

“No one is arguing that one species should take precedence over another, but at the moment it seems like us fanciers are being squeezed out when there should be room for all of us.”

While informal races had been taking place for a number of years, by the late 19th century there was a need for proper rules and regulations. In 1896 the National Homing Union was founded at a meeting at the White Swan in Leeds and the city gained a reputation as a hub for pigeon fanciers.

The traditional method of timing racing pigeons involves attaching a rubber ring around the bird’s leg before the race. The serial number is recorded and a racing clock is set and sealed. When the first bird returns home, the ring is removed, placed in a slot in the clock and the official time recorded.

South Africa is the home of the richest one-loft race in the world. The Million Dollar Pigeon Race pits 4,300 birds from 25 countries against each other for a share of $1.3m prize money. The runners-up win cars and smaller monetary prizes, while the overall winner can expect to pocket $200,000.