Thieves fly away home with pounds 30,000 pigeon

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The Independent Online
To you it may be only a pigeon. But to Keith Turner it was a "golden egg", a bird that made his dreams come true, a champion among champions - not to mention the fact that it was worth pounds 30,000.

It was Red Daniel, an eight-year-old racing pigeon and the object of desire for a gang of thieves who breached Mr Turner's security cordon to snatch the bird and pounds 70,000 worth of other top breeding pigeons.

The gang struck in driving rain in the early hours of Tuesday. Its members - likely to be other racing pigeon fanciers - had probably been to Red Daniels' loft in Fingringhoe, Essex, before because they knew all about the light sensors which would have alerted Mr Turner in his bed, and they managed to avoid them.

"There was just one blind spot, but they seemed to know all about it," said Mr Turner. "Now they've taken the backbone of my stock - a life's work."

The thieves took Red Daniel and 15 pairs of breeding pigeons, leaving behind only one of Red's offspring, probably by accident. It was no accident, however, that they targeted the loft in the first place because Red Daniel is a former British champion racing pigeon. And that makes him proportionately as valuable in his sport as a thoroughbred racehorse stud is in his.

Racing pigeons is a lucrative sport, with purses in many races reaching thousands of pounds. The world's biggest prize is for a million-dollar race in Africa where birds are taken as chicks and raised in one huge loft until ready to race; the first back to the loft makes its owner very wealthy.

"Red Daniel was like a golden egg to me," said Mr Turner, 51, a former railway worker. "Whenever I needed anything, I'd advertise some of his chicks in the paper and within one or two phone calls they'd be gone. They fetched pounds 500 each.

"I feel absolutely devastated about the loft. A bird like Red Daniel is one in 10,000. I doubt I'll ever be able to raise one like him again."

The thieves will have stolen Mr Turner's birds to enrich their own stock. But, like the crooks who stole the racehorse Shergar, they won't be able to sell Red Daniel on the open market and they will not be able to cash in on his breeding potential; they can hardly tell a potential buyer that a stolen bird, however good, sired a chick.

Eventually, however, if they win enough races with Red Daniels' offspring, those birds will attain a breeding value of their own.

Nevertheless, they will have a long way to go before attaining the sort of superstar status reserved for Invincible Spirit, a bird bought for pounds 110,000 after defeating 27,000 other birds to win the 719 mile Barcelona International classic race in 1992. He was snapped up by the Massarella family for their pounds 1m pigeon breeding centre, Louella Pigeon World in Loughborough, Leicestershire. Invincible Spirit lives in a secret loft, hidden somewhere on the estates owned by the Massarella family in Leicestershire, Yorkshire and Scotland. Security men are on 24-hour duty with at least one member of the Massarella family always on instant call.

One of the perks of the pigeon's job is that he never has to race again - for to lose him would be disastrous. Instead, eight carefully selected hens, champions or the daughters of champions, are taken to him each year for breeding purposes. If everything goes well, and it usually does, every hatched bird has the potential to become a golden pigeon in its own right. Each of Invincible Spirit's 400 expected offspring fetch pounds 5,000 from breeders.

None of which provides any consolation for Mr Turner. His flock wasn't insured - no company will take a chance on racing-pigeon losses - but he always has a faint hope that Red Daniel might escape. For if he does, he will surely find his way home.