I’m in Gloucestershire, not some far-off rainforest, and I’m watching pigeons, rather than birds of paradise. But as the flock of 20 birds arches symmetrically overhead, brushes along a line of willow trees and coalesces into pyramid formation, I find myself unexpectedly moved by the determined flapping of these biddable birds.
A whistle sounds, and the pigeons respond, settling on to a 60m (197ft) long loft. A flurry of feathers, rocking back and forward, descends in their slipstream. Jeremy Davies pipes the whistle softly once again. I feel like I’m watching an episode of One Man and his Pigeons. Should Hollywood ever cotton on to pigeon racing, then Jeremy, who manages this loft for the Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA), would inevitably be branded the pigeon whisperer. I’ve only spent an hour with Jeremy and, as he herds the pigeons to ground, I’m already struck by the emotional bond he has with these birds – all 1,250 of them.
For this is no ordinary loft, but a mega loft, a throbbing, cooing hub of pigeon racing, located at Berrow, near Tewkesbury. The pigeons here are generally owned by pigeon fanciers who lack a garden. But they are also a striking reaffirmation of an enduring relationship.
The birds open a window into prehistory. Their direct ancestor, the wild rock dove, was tamed at least 7,000 years ago, and we’ve been eating and keeping them ever since. The Normans introduced the tradition of dovecotes to Britain and later these developed from austere appendages to monasteries to become increasingly elaborate and ornate. By the 18th century, there were more than 26,000 dovecotes.
Inside the loft
Today, a sturdy shed tends to be the residence of choice. At one such loft, next door to the RPRA’s headquarters, I am introduced to Mr Pipples and the Special Hen, the prized cock and hen owned by the association’s Karen James. The hen came 11th out of 2,000 pigeons in a race from Bordeaux to the UK. It took her 13 hours. “You get enormously involved,” says Karen. “When she arrived back from Bordeaux, she dropped like a stone out of the sky, I was almost hyperventilating. To think she does that distance in a day for the love of the place I’ve created for her.”
The RPRA is by far the largest of the five pigeon racing associations in UK, with more than 2,000 affiliated clubs – some with curious names, such as the Up North Combine and the West Durham Amalgamation – while membership includes 28,400 of the 43,000 registered pigeon fanciers. RPRA members breed around one million young birds each year and collectively there are reckoned to be up to seven million racing pigeons in the UK. When you spot a pigeon flapping determinedly overhead, the chances are it will be a racing bird headed home.
I express surprise that mission control is a sandstone mansion on the edge of Cheltenham. “We’ve members in every postcode in the UK,” says Karen. “People have no understanding of how big pigeon racing is. It’s not flat caps and whippets.” That much is true. Horse racing is not the only sport of kings: the Queen’s Royal Loft at Sandringham houses some 200 pigeons.
As we peer at row upon row of Karen’s pigeons, they shuffle to face the exit, beadily scrutinising it for an opening. Then quietly, knowingly, they lift their wings, rather like a jumbo jet extending its flaps at the end of the runway before take-off. They don’t just race: football results were conveyed by pigeon post in the 1960s and up until the 1970s, a carrier pigeon service of blood samples were still flown for tests between hospitals in Plymouth.
So just how do they do it? No one is entirely sure, but it’s probably the interplay of several factors, including smell, visual identification and the sun, while up to 53 cells in the bird’s brain are thought to be influenced by the Earth’s magnetic field. “First we let the young pigeons fly around above the loft,” explains Stewart Wardrop, general manager of the RPRA. “We then take them to the next field, then a further field, so they build up a mental picture of where they live. Then we take them a mile away, two miles, five, 10, 20 and 40 miles.”
At eight months of age, the birds at Berrow are ready to take part in 200-mile races. But matters are rarely straightforward: around a third fail to make the cut. Coroners’ reports on pigeon deaths would make for lively reading: cats, sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons (see right), telephone wires, pylons and even the disorientating impact of solar flares take their toll, removing the weak and the unlucky from the gene pool in true Darwinian fashion.
Depending on wind conditions, a bird at optimum fitness can fly 500 miles in a day. The longest race is some 740 miles, from Barcelona to the UK. With a tailwind, pigeons can fly at an astonishing 90mph, though this drops to 35mph in a stiff headwind. It is, as Stewart poetically puts it: “A race with one start but a thousand finishing lines.” The winner is not the first one home, but the fastest home, in yards per minute, as lofts can be different distances from the start, known as the liberation site.
The biggest races can offer £20,000 in prize money. For such events, birds travel to the liberation site in state-of-the-art transporters that cost £250,000 and which are fitted with sprinklers and sun lamps. “It’s very, very competitive,” admits Jeremy. “It’s all about trying to gain that extra few yards here or there. The better birds are the quiet ones. They’re not pacing around, they don’t fly their race in the crate.”
Pigeon racing is meaningful enough to justify random doping tests for endurance-enhancing drugs, while gambling was widespread up to the 1970s. Cases of prized pigeon thefts surface from time to time and – despite the advent of electronic chips – suspiciously swift journey times still turn up.
“Winning is everything,” says Stewart. “It’s more the kudos. The beauty is that it’s not necessarily the best or most expensive pigeon who will win. It’s not a rich man’s sport. It all depends on factors such as the wind and the pigeon’s performance on the day.”
Yet for all the evident passion and vibrancy, membership, which peaked at 100,000 in the 1960s, is steadily declining. Like the pigeons themselves, if the sport is to flourish it must head off in different directions. Research is emerging of the restorative effect of pigeons on children with behavioural problems or those who have had a brush with the law, with successful projects run in Scotland, Lincolnshire and the Young Offenders Institution in Wetherby, West Yorkshire. In Birmingham, Project Pigeon manages a loft that works to bring urban communities from diverse backgrounds together.
And that bête noire of outdoor games, computer game technology, could yet drag pigeon racing into the 21st century, amid plans for pigeon apps to show real-time flight paths and times for racing birds. “Pigeon racing used to be the sport of footballers,” sighs Stewart. “But they are more likely to own a racehorse nowadays. If Wayne Rooney could take up pigeon racing, we’d be in business.”