On a wing and a prayer, pigeons set off on their grand adventure

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The Independent Online

With twenty in each spacious crate, the muscular little birds are quiet but watchful, cooing meditatively to themselves in the hangar-like building, as they wait for the racing pigeons' Grand National.

With twenty in each spacious crate, the muscular little birds are quiet but watchful, cooing meditatively to themselves in the hangar-like building, as they wait for the racing pigeons' Grand National.

Bright-eyed, glistening with health, these racing pigeons are the aristocrats of a breed held in high regard since Pliny used them in the siege of Rome.

This morning, assuming the weather conditions are not wholly against them, 3,916 English birds will be released simultaneously in south-west France. They are taking part in the Pau Grand National, the most prestigious race of the year in this grand old sport.

The distance is about 600 miles, possibly a good deal further if their lofts are in the north. With the wind behind them, they can reach speeds of 50mph and more, and the first bird will be home less than 24 hours later. But this is a race about more than speed; it is also about survival.

Navigation is the least of their problems. Weather, guns, obstacles, predators - all stand between them and home. The attrition rate is high; at least one in 10 will not make it.

In Britain, this sport of Kings - past presidents of the National Flying Club include King George V, and the Queen has a racing loft - is struggling. Of the 75,000 fanciers who are actively involved in racing, many believe that most local clubs will fold over the next 10 years.

Val Richards, 44, is as pessimistic about the future of the sport as he is about his chances of success in the race. "Pigeon racing is basically a very badly organised sport and that's why it's dying," he says. "There are too many vested interests, too many organisations, too many governing bodies all fighting each other to attract entries. The politics are a disaster."

The fight for survival is no longer confined to each individual loft; it pervades the sport as a whole.

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