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


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."

Suggested Topics
Premier League Live
footballLIVE Follow all the Premier League action as it happens
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
peopleTV star had been reported missing
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Data Scientist (SQL, PHP, RSPSS, CPLEX, SARS, AI) - London

£60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A prestigious leading professiona...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone