August 23rd, 2008 admin

I spent last Friday enjoying a crash course in the sport of pigeon fancying, with the very amiable Billy Marr as my tutor. While thirty of his pigeons were enjoying their daily fly, Billy ran me through his techniques for breeding, training and racing pigeons. Like most pigeon fanciers, Billy was born into the sport. Along with his two brothers he has been breeding and flying pigeons for over 30 years from his loft in the North Allotment in the town of Easington. (A town based around the local colliery, which closed in 1993. It was also where most of Stephen Daldry’s film Billy Elliot was shot).

During a race, all the pigeons start from a transport truck which can be parked up to 200 miles away, but the finish line is each pigeon’s home loft. Each race has a distance, but not all the pigeon’s fly the same distance. The first pigeon to reach its loft isn’t necessarily the winner. The fastest flyer, calculated in yards per minute, wins the race.

Each member has a clock synchronized with the club’s master clock. The distance from each owner’s loft to the start of the race has been surveyed and calculated. Each pigeon wears a registration band on one leg and a rubber band on the other. In the Easington Working Men’s Club that night I watched Billy and his fellow members of the South East Durham Federation synchronize their clocks for tomorrow’s race. 

The pigeon’s rubber band is the ‘message’ it’s carrying. That message goes into the clock, and the clock marks the time the pigeon returns. The pigeon’s time of return is used to figure the speed of the bird and crown a race winner.

I found it fascinating to witness Billy’s devotion to his pigeons – a species Ken Livingstone famously described as “flying rats”. In the north-east of England, where pigeon racing is still popular enough to support hundreds of local clubs, a handful of wonderfully named federations such as the Up North Combine (which Billy is a member of) and the West Durham Amalgamation and weekly races contested by tens of thousands of pigeons, the tradition and the passion are deeply ingrained.

The sport requires a huge time commitment and for those who want to win, and it is no longer a particularly cheap hobby. Billy feeds them corn that costs over £10 a bag and every bird receives an annual vaccination against paramyxovirus to keep it in peak condition. It costs between 50p and £1 to enter a pigeon in a race, which may be contested by up to 6,000 birds, but the prize money is modest (the winners at a recent national event shared a £4,000 pot). Buying birds for breeding can be expensive, however – the record is £110,000 for a single pigeon  (Invisible Spirit bought by 

Young people are not exactly flocking to pigeon racing, and everyone concedes that the sport has been in decline since the glory days of the 1950s. Peter Bryant, general manager of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, says it loses about 2,000 members a year. “We call it the Sony PlayStation and David Beckham syndrome,” he says. “It’s very difficult to get youngsters into the sport. The old racers are dying and the youngsters aren’t coming through.”

For a comprehensive background to the sport in the UK go to this link.



  1. Hi to all.
    I am doing some reserch into pigeon racing and am hoping you may take some time to help me.
    I have heard about a race where the birds were released in France to fly back to the UK. Very few made it back ,many being lost at sea in a terrible storm.
    Is this a true story? and if so do you have any information regarding this race, date for instance.
    I would be most greatfull for any information you can pass on.
    Yours very sincerely
    Mary Crisp

  2. Michael Bennett Says:
    September 7th, 2013 at 7:04 am

    Hello I to am trying to get info on a race from France to Uk which was WON by my father Bird called ( Dirty Nose ) it was a terrible storm Thunder & Lighting etc but Dirty Nose made it back and won , There is more to the story? . This was in the 1950 ‘s . is that the area you are looking in.
    Regards, Michael.

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