A slice of Britain: Thousands flock to crown king of pigeons
Fanciers from across the country pack into Blackpool's Winter Gardens for their annual show, but many fear the traditionally working-class hobby has become too high-flying for its own good
Emily Dugan is social affairs correspondent for The Independent, i and Independent on Sunday, covering Sarah Cassidy’s maternity leave. She was previously a news reporter for The Independent on Sunday. Her investigations into human trafficking have twice been awarded Best Investigative Article at the Anti-Slavery Day Media Awards and her human rights journalism was shortlisted for the Gaby Rado Memorial prize at the 2012 Amnesty Media Awards.
Sunday 22 January 2012
Pigeon number 3007 is wearing a superior expression. And well he might: this straight-necked bird, with his delicate grey back and snow-white undercarriage has more rosettes than bars on his cage and has just been named Supreme Champion. This is the Royal Pigeon Racing Association's (RPRA) Show of the Year, otherwise known as the Crufts of the pigeon world, and 3007 is taking home the most coveted prize.
Each year at Blackpool's Winter Gardens, 4,000 birds compete to be the best. Here, pigeons are groomed pedigree birds, distant cousins of the "rats with wings" that perch one-legged on Blackpool Tower.
Over the weekend around 25,000 people descend on the town to gawp, prod, buy and sell. It has become the busiest weekend of the year for Blackpool, with hotels, taxis and restaurants all doing a longed-for roaring trade. There are so many people that the coo of several thousand pigeons is only just audible over the crowd.
Number 3007's owner, Norman Perry, 71, is a retired postman from Port Talbot, south Wales. He has been keeping birds for as long as he can remember: his father kept pigeons, as did his father's father. This is the third time one of his birds has been named Supreme Champion – he picked up the gong in 2005 and 2009 – but the novelty hasn't worn off: "It feels great. Of all the shows in the country, this is the one to win."
His wife, however, was a little underwhelmed at the prize. "The first thing she asked when I rang to tell her the news was 'how much money have you won?'. She's come along with me once before, but she's not into pigeons."
The business of grooming a prize-winning pigeon is highly competitive. To get those soft feathers, people will add special bath salts to water and keep the cages cleaner than a Michelin-starred kitchen. Before the practice was banned by the RSPCA, fanciers even used to put cortisone in birds' eyes to stop them feeling pain when they raced.
The Young Fancier categories for under-18s are still being judged, and men in white lab coats march through the rows of caged birds, jotting notes on clipboards. Judge Alistair Ewart, 67, is peering into a cage at a bored-looking pigeon. "This one won't get good marks – look at the size of its neck," he tuts.
The pigeon in question looks much like the others, though on very close inspection his neck is a fraction narrower than his neighbours'.
Pigeons are entered in two main categories: for their beauty (show pigeons) or their suitability for racing. The birds currently being judged are show pigeons, and Mr Ewart is looking for balance, feather quality and buoyancy. "It's like Kelly Holmes vs Kelly Brooks", he says, "This is a Kelly Brooks – she's a beauty – and those over there are for racing, so you're looking for muscle tone."
While many pigeon fanciers come from around the country to take their chances on a rosette, most are here for the auctions and stalls, hoping to pick up a bargain bird, see the latest technology and get the edge on their competitors.
Around 200 trade stands provide everything you could ever want for your pampered feathered friend. From organic bird seed to a £200,000 mahogany loft for racing birds and DVDs promising to reveal the secrets of champion pigeons. There is even a stall for "Flightmaster" pigeon health supplements.
The sport may have royal associations – the Queen is patron of the RPRA – the birds are now big business. Belgium has been the lead country for pigeon racing for decades, with a Chinese buyer recently paying more than £100,000 for a pedigree bird. The Chinese are increasingly becoming a powerhouse for the hobby. During the Cultural Revolution it was banned for being too capitalist, but a resurgence of interest in the 1970s means China is now home to more than 300,000 pigeon fanciers and some of the wealthiest breeders and traders in the world.
While fancying may be taking flight in China, in the UK it is dwindling. In 1989 there were 60,000 members of the RPRA, now that number has halved. Most visitors and competitors are men in their sixties and seventies, and enthusiasts are worried the sport risks falling off its perch within this generation. Though pedigree birds are expensive, the prize money is small. Even here the top awards do not carry more than a £500 prize.
Malcolm Proudlock, 67, a retired shopkeeper from Catchgate, County Durham, has more than 100 pigeons and has been racing them most of his life. He is worried that mounting costs from foreign markets is going to make it impossible for hobbyists to carry on.
"It costs all this money to do it and you can't win much of it back. That's why it's a dying sport. Years ago everybody thought those in the north of England were pigeon people. Now people are buying them for £20,000 a go – it's only the moneyed and posh people that can do it.
"A lot of pigeon men are over 65 now. There's nobody else coming into the game. When I was a youngster I loved to see a pigeon come and finish the race but now the kids are all playing on the computer."
There are a select few bucking the trend, however. John Harrod, 16, from Lowestoft in Suffolk, is a fifth-generation pigeon racer. He has wiped the floor in the Young Fancier categories, taking first, second and third prize for his show pigeons. "You get prize money but I don't do it for that. I'll put all the money back into food or the birds."
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