Coming into the Sport

A NEW STARTER’S VIEW

BY BOBBY WICKES

Some of you may have seen some lively debate (when is it ever not lively) by The RP on Facebook recently about the promotion of pigeon racing and attracting new flyers to this wonderful sport of ours. Having added my own comment to the discussion, I was asked by the Editor to offer a little more on the subject and share my experiences as a new starter. Some of you may be thinking “What on earth can an inexperienced novice know about the sport that can help in improving participation numbers?”

Fair point. It is not my intention to come in and start telling infinitely more experienced pigeon men and women what we should be doing to better promote our sport. What I can do is talk a little about my own experiences in starting up, what I have found challenging in the process and what have been the positive aspects of my journey that might be expanded upon in the future to attract new people to pigeons.

Firstly, a little about me. Unusually and unlike many flyers, I did not get the bug from a family member. Pigeon racing had never even entered the vocabulary of my family let alone been part of anyone’s spare time. I picked up the interest from my best pal David. His father had raced with some success during the 70s and 80s in the Midlands, counting among his contemporaries, I believe, the likes of Geoff Kirkland and Frank Tasker before selling up and moving to the South Coast where David and I grew up.

David kept pigeons in a small Wendy House (much to his sister’s dismay) and I was fascinated by them. After a time, I took over a stable on the farm where I grew up and acquired a couple of strays from him. I caught other birds on the farm and very soon I had filled the stable. Being less than a mile from the South Coast and a mile west of West Bay (for those who use liberation points for their geography) strays would frequently drop with my birds and I would report them to their owners. Some would head off after a good feed and watering, others stayed and eventually I had about 30 birds in total.

Me on the visit to John Angwin.

Photo by Jess Angwin.

David and I would race against each other from the back of his father’s car as he travelled around the south of England and Wales for his work. Our racing season culminating in our own cross Channel race. Not from France sadly, but from South Wales over the Bristol Channel!

Twenty five years on and here I am trying to get back into the sport. The intervening years have seen weekends of cricket, hockey, golf and fishing but I’ve always kept my eye on the game through the internet and having moved back to the South West, the idea of having loft and a small team of birds has been growing.

Without any contacts in the sport, I have been very fortunate to find Tumley Lofts Stud relatively near to me. I called James at Tumley and explained my situation and James was and continues to be extremely generous with his advice and guidance. He has given me advice on the birds, the loft and its design and what I needed to consider throughout the process. In this age of the hard sell, he never once tried to push me in to buying birds from him. Indeed, when I told him I wanted to buy a kit of young birds from him, he talked me out of buying the 30 I felt I needed because he (quite rightly) believed other local fanciers were likely to offer help to me by gifting birds.

The first lesson I have learnt is that there are a great many generous fanciers out there who will do as much as they can to help out new starters. I expected to have to spend a fortune on new birds but this need not be a barrier for starting as the truth is you can spend as much or as little as you like. I also expected to have a great deal of learning to do to understand what it takes to keep and race pigeons in 2020 but a positive aspect of the sport these days is that access to other fanciers is almost unlimited. Facebook in particular provides a great platform for flyers and breeders to connect and provide helpful insights in to pigeon racing in the current climate (no selling!) along with a little friendly banter too.

Lesson number two for me has been to join as many of the pigeon groups as I can on Facebook. The access to knowledge on these is equal to any number of books, websites and articles. It has given me a huge resource for learning about the sport from all over the country and the world and it has been extremely useful for me to read different approaches to pigeon health, training, trapping, feeding, breeding and even loft design. However, one disadvantage of this incredible access to fanciers is knowing what to follow and what to ignore. Some of the feedback and answers to questions can be brutally honest and dismissive. Don’t take any of it personally, anyone who comments is trying to help, even if they haven’t put it as delicately as you might like! For new starters that have never kept pigeons before, the shear volume of information available can be overwhelming. For me, a particularly challenging part of my journey has been deciding which birds to have in my loft. Twenty five years ago, the birds that came through my stable on the farm were almost exclusively Janssens, Cattrysse and Busschaerts. There were of course other strains but the point is that there seemed to be far fewer breeds covering broader ranges of distance. These days the sheer number of fashionable families like the Heremans, Bulcks, Gabbys, Jellemas, Sablons, Koopmans, Lambrechts etc, made it confusing for me when choosing the blood to invest in.

My third lesson then is to follow the advice that I have been given by a number of fanciers that I have come to value and trust. I was told to decide the distances I want to fly and if I’m buying birds, buy the ones that have had results at those distances. If I couldn’t actually buy the birds with those results, I went for birds the same way bred or at least direct sons and daughters of those birds. Essentially, the message for me was to get as close to the winning birds as I could regardless of the name of the breed or strain. There are a huge number of breeders online offering young birds and it has been very tempting for me to contact them to purchase a kit or two but following the advice I mentioned above, I have settled on some birds that I am very happy with and that I have full pedigrees for showing results of parents and grandparents. As I mentioned earlier, there are a great many generous fanciers out there willing to gift young birds to new starters. If I hadn’t been fortunate in having set aside a budget for starting up, I would still have been able to obtain genuinely high-quality birds through the kindness of other people in the sport. I could have done it all again and spent a small fraction of the money that I had set aside.

Another aspect of modern pigeon racing that I hadn’t really encountered the first time around is the disruption and dread caused by the hawks or birds of prey. Back in the 90s, the number of nesting pairs of Peregrines in this region could have been counted on one hand. Indeed, there was a nesting pair on the cliffs behind the farm and it was kept a great secret to ensure egg collectors didn’t climb up and disturb them. Despite them being on my door step, I only ever had one incident with them and it was unsuccessful. I could leave the birds out all day and not worry about predation from them or any other hawks. There were a few Sparrowhawks about too but I never had any trouble. Now that I have a kit of 30 young birds in the new loft, I am wracked with nerves every time I let them out. On the walk out to the loft I scour the skies and then once I’m there, I have the binoculars trained upwards rather than watching my birds in their early forays in to the great outdoors. It is extremely stressful, certainly not the relaxing enjoyment I used to get just watching the pigeons out and about for hours. Some fanciers I have spoken to say I care too much about them, they seem desensitised to the risk of bird of prey strikes but to me it’s an awful feeling that I hope I can get over. In the month since I picked up the youngsters, I’ve seen a pair of Peregrines high overhead and a Goshawk being chased through by the local crows and rooks. The Sparrowhawk never seems far away either, she whizzes by having a good look at them.

As a fourth lesson, in light of the risks from birds of prey, I have picked up a couple of strategies to try and get over the impact of this threat. Firstly, I designed the loft with an aviary. The second is to mix up the routine of letting the birds out at different times and not every day. Having an aviary has been invaluable in giving the birds some access to the outdoors without the worry of predation. I am fortunate that I am home all day so being able to alter my routine is relatively straightforward. The aviary is a vital part of that. If I need to keep them in for a few days, they’re still getting plenty of fresh air and a good look at their environment.

The next hurdle that I am very wary of and that was not prevalent in my youth is the dreaded Young Bird Sickness. A month in with my young birds and I am constantly watching for wet droppings, slow blinking, coughing and sneezing and wet beaks. The young birds seemed so much more robust 25 years ago and were, I’m sure, more tolerant of nasties in and around the loft. When I think back to the state of the stable sometimes, I cringe at what these modern birds would do in such an environment! I am dreading the onset of YBS in my loft but I am told it is inevitable. Until then, the birds will have fresh water twice a day, garlic and a few well known tonics on the corn. The loft will be scraped daily and cleared out each week and above all, I’m told I must keep it dry. Even with these measures, it seems there is no guarantee that I’ll avoid it.

So, the fifth lesson I have learned is that I will eventually have twice as many birds as I had planned for. This is in reaction to both the risk of predation from birds of Prey and also the risk of Young Bird Sickness. I had initially planned to start with a team of 20 young birds, everyone has told me I will need more, even if I am careful. As a result, I will end up with nearly 40 to race the young bird programme this year and even that number is being scoffed at by some men in my club with some of those chaps recommending 60 to start with. Now, my partner rarely heads up to the loft to see the birds but even she will notice 60 pigeons darkening the skies overhead rather than the 20 ‘odd’ I had promised to return to the hobby with. Indeed, that is one thing that doesn’t appear to have changed over the years, pigeon men and women will always want more birds than they say they will have. I have already met chaps struggling to keep on top of over 100 birds and looked on at their set ups green with envy. My good lady has no idea the plans I have!

Despite all the challenges, obstacles, stress and anxiety I have written about here, I am still extremely happy to have a loft full of birds at the end of my garden. I take great delight in going up there each day and following the progress of the breeding pairs and, more recently, the development of the youngsters. I have met some really fabulous people even in this short time. These people have been enormously generous with their time, advice, patience and also their birds. Marcus Blackmore of Heavitree & St Loyes Club who answered my initial email with warmth and enthusiasm and has been nothing but welcoming in my quest to join the club. Wayne Wright of Exeter who let me come and see his birds after hearing about my enquiry to Marcus and generously arranged some stock for me. Ian Johnstone of Camborne and John & Michael Angwin of Penzance who, among others, answered a Facebook plea for me to visit established lofts in the South West. Their generosity has been humbling and I am forever grateful to them. Finally, James Cook of Tumley Lofts Stud. He could so easily have taken advantage of my naive enthusiasm and taken me to the cleaners in selling me birds from his stud. Instead he has never once tried to sell me any birds, he even reined me in with sensible advice on my numbers when I was getting carried away. He has also provided a huge amount of advice and patience and I will not hesitate in recommending him to any fancier, not just new starters.

The final lesson I have learnt is to ask for help if you need it through social media or directly of club members and officials. Meet as many fanciers as possible and go and see their set ups. Always be on the look out for opportunities to learn from these people. I have yet to encounter anyone in the sport who is unwilling to help in some way. Some of the Facebook groups can be a little brutal and blunt, as I have already mentioned, but I don’t take it personally and I’m not afraid of criticism, it all helps. I take delight and pride in the birds and despite all the challenges I have written about, I assure you, it has been worth it so far.

It has already been a hugely rewarding process and I am incredibly excited at the prospect of getting the birds on the road. I can’t wait for that familiar buzz of watching the skies for that dark shape or two coming over the horizon towards me on race day. If you ask me what the sport needs to do to attract new fanciers, it’s to give them exposure to that feeling on race day, let them feel that buzz. That’s what hooks us and that can’t be replicated by visiting schools with a basket full of pigeons and talking about them. So many fanciers pick up that buzz from family members at a very young age. For those that have never experienced it, we need to create opportunities for them to experience it. I believe that’s when the interest will come, I’ve seen it in other sports and hobbies, angling in particular. The Environment Agency and Angling Trust has introduced a drive to introduce people to fishing by providing free fishing days with equipment and tuition included. It’s no surprise to me that numbers of new anglers of all ages are up all over the country as a result. No matter how many people you tell about the great aspects of a sport or pastime, participation is the key, they will never know until they’ve actually tried it. Some great work is already being done with schools on the one loft races but more could be done elsewhere. We should consider that older people looking for a hobby could be enticed in to the sport as well. It would be foolish to limit the approach solely to children, a strategy that is not broad enough to consider all possible new starters is likely to be limited in its success.