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Lee Walker is secretary of the Sheerness Flying Club and has been involved in the sport since being introduced to pigeons by his grandparents. He tells us about a sport that faces many challenges but one which he and many others find addictive.

Sheerness Flying Club secretary Lee Walker (45375979)
Sheerness Flying Club secretary Lee Walker (45375979)

GETTING INVOLVED

My nan and grandad had been racing pigeons since the 1950s and at 14 I got involved myself. My grandad passed away at that time, my nan wasn’t the most mobile, so she took myself and one of my brothers on as a partnership for racing the birds.

I spent as many hours as I could around school life at my nans, helping with the cleaning, feeding, watching them fly around the shed exercising and going off with my uncles to take them training while we had some good results on the Channel Racing.

I don’t race at the moment, when my Nan passed away, with myself getting older and with work commitments I didn’t have the time to spend with her and I have got married and moved into my own place with my wife. We rent a flat and that is not the ideal set-up!

Our plan long-term is to look to get somewhere of our own so I can get back into the racing side of things. I do miss it. Since 2003 I became the club secretary of Sheerness Flying Club so I put in a lot of hours making sure the administrative side of running the club and getting results out for the members when the birds return is all done. I am still very heavily involved, although I don’t get the hands on part of the sport, which is the most rewarding part.

THE APPEAL?

It is one of those addictive things that once you are involved, although you can have your ups and downs, it is very hard to pull away from it.

There have been members who have left due to different things and 15-20 years or longer they have come back to it. It is one of those things that when it is in your blood it is hard to get away from. For me, it is quite interesting to see a youngster hatch and you bring it along in its life and then take it away for training, watch it come home, then send it away for racing and watching them come home and looking after them day to day. It gives you a sense of achievement and what you put in to something is rewarded by them loving their home environment enough for them to want to come back.

Pigeon racing is a sport that is struggling to keep participation levels up
Pigeon racing is a sport that is struggling to keep participation levels up

STATE OF THE SPORT

The sport as a whole is rapidly declining, at a very fast pace. Unfortunately there are very few younger people coming in and the membership is getting ever older.

We don’t have the members coming in behind to carry it on long-term. The Royal Pigeon Racing Association have introduced initiatives around parts of the country where they have offered support to schools, to get them to set up a community loft, whereby the children can handle the pigeons and get involved in looking after them but I think there is a lot of room for that to be increased. That is the only way we will save the sport from going completely.

A lot of factors come into it, you have more people renting now than owning, landlords are funny with animals as you can imagine, so that’s not easy. Newer properties don’t always have the biggest gardens now. The biggest issue is that the generations of children now would much rather be stuck infront of games consoles or their TVs and phones and don’t have that get-up to look after something and caring for something many hours of the day, every day. It is an attitude change in people.

The initial outlays to start up in the sport aren’t cheap. It is quite an expensive thing to start but once you have got the loft set-up you don’t necessarily have to go and pay lots of money to buy pigeons. When you do join a local club those members will always rally round and breed you some birds to get you going, the members are very helpful, they will lend you some of their knowledge, not all of their secrets, but that is the same as everything.

SECRETS TO SUCCESS

The pigeons are trained to be taken away from home to certain places and released to fly back and with regards to what makes a good pigeon, that is a very difficult question to answer.

It is the thing that people don’t actually know, it has never actually been found what it is that makes the pigeon return home. It is one of the secrets that us as pigeon people would never want to know.

People have their own theories, there is the theory about the magnetic fields of the earth being used to navigate, some think they use landmarks and on a good day when a pigeon is up as high as it can be, they can see up to 25 miles. That does lend to the theory they can use certain landmarks.

Like a lot of other sports, different pigeons are successful at different distances. Some might be very good at races up to 150 miles but not as good at races up to 600-700 miles. A lot of it is down to the way you train them and the way you feed them. The longer they need to go, they need more high energy corn. The birds that are at sprinting distance will have a lighter feed but with more explosive energy so they can do the shorter distances at a quicker rate. On a good day, with a tail wind, a pigeon can fly in excess of 70-80mph. They can certainly go. For a bird flying the longer distances, they can average 35-40mph for the whole distance.

Sheerness Flying Club secretary Lee Walker with his Nan, Hazel Walker and younger brother Gary Walker. bird race from Bergerac in the South West of France with the pigeon covering the 455 miles in just under 18hrs with an average speed of 744 yards per minute / 25 miles per hour. (45376006)
Sheerness Flying Club secretary Lee Walker with his Nan, Hazel Walker and younger brother Gary Walker. bird race from Bergerac in the South West of France with the pigeon covering the 455 miles in just under 18hrs with an average speed of 744 yards per minute / 25 miles per hour. (45376006)

RECORD-BREAKING PIGEON

The world record price for a racing pigeon was broken in 2020, a Chinese person bought a pigeon, a two-year-old hen bird, from a fancier in Belgium and that fetched £1.4m.

At club level now, prize money in the UK is negligible, it wouldn’t even cover your race fees but it is more for the fun of it. As you move up the levels, you can compete at national level to compete for Channel Race honours and birds fly back from Spain and France, then there are money prizes, some races can have cars as prizes but in places like Belgium, France and Holland, the sport is still huge and the prize money is there for them.

RACING IN KENT

The format that we use in Kent is that there are a number of clubs in the county and that is split into two federations, the Kent Premier and the Kent Cosmopolitan, they then become the next level up.

When you as a member are flying, although you fly against your own members you also have the honour of flying the federation and we belong to one that has 12 clubs. Those are all then competing for federation honours and the prestige that brings. A club might send on average 100-200 pigeons, a federation might be sending from 1,500-2,000 pigeons. For five or six weeks of the year the two federations within Kent come together to form the Kent Invicta South Road combine, they are usually longer races and the two federations compete against each other.

CURRENT RESTRICTIONS

Last season Covid affected us greatly in as much as it curtailed the length of the season, we never got started until June when we would usually start in the second or third week of April.

We would usually have 14 old bird races and seven young bird races, that was cut to seven and seven. With social distancing it had a massive impact on the club environment as we couldn’t all get together at the same time. It had a detrimental impact to the club life and the social side of things.

Over the winter we haven’t been able to hold meetings. As a club we have adapted as much as we can using technology rather than face to face contact that we would love to have and hope to have as long as we move through the lockdown roadmap.

Over the Christmas period and the start of this year the avian bird flu has put restrictions on the movement of pigeons, with exercise only being allowed around the loft for up to an hour a day, making sure they didn’t mix with the wild birds for too long and lessoning the risk of the influenza coming into the sheds and spreading. Those restrictions are now being lifted but pigeon racing has not had its licence given back to us yet by DEFRA to enable racing yet. The governing body are working to get that restriction lifted.

Avian flu and Covid-19 have hampered the sport of pigeon racing in the last year Picture: Chris Davey
Avian flu and Covid-19 have hampered the sport of pigeon racing in the last year Picture: Chris Davey
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