'I cried when one bird flew home with a broken leg'
Pigeon fancying may be a dying sport but it still captures public imagination here, discovers Ivan Little
Ask anyone in Northern Ireland to name the most famous pigeon fancier in the world and the odds are that they'll say it's Jack Duckworth from Coronation Street. And even though he hasn't appeared in the soap for years, most folks' knowledge of pigeon racing starts and finishes with Jack, who joked that he loved his feathered friends more than he loved his wife, Vera.
Actor Bill Tarmey, who played the roguish Jack, died over three years ago, but his pigeons still live on through occasional mentions from other characters on the cobbled streets of Weatherfield.
In the real world of Northern Ireland, pigeons are still a flight of fancy for upwards of 2,000 fanciers, though the achievements of their birds rarely make the news.
Harry McCloy, from Cullybackey, found himself at the centre of unwanted headlines last week after thieves stole 50 of his prized birds, valued at more than £8,000.
He said the robbers clearly knew what they were doing, because they took all his racers - some of them all-Ireland champions - and left others behind.
The robbery stunned the pigeon racing community here, but it wasn't the first and the fear is that it won't be the last. However, most bird men - and the odd bird woman - normally play by the rules of the roost.
Willie Reynolds, from Ballymena's Ballykeel area, who writes extensively about pigeons and has around 100 birds, became a fancier almost by proxy.
He says: "It was my brother who got started after taking an interest in a neighbour's loft. A few years later, my brother headed off to America and stayed there, so I began looking after them."
In those days, keeping pigeons was more popular than it is today. In the terraced streets around east Belfast, for example, it wasn't unusual for dozens of houses to have lofts out the back.
And for many people, like me, who grew up there, the sound of birds coo-ing contently in their wooden sheds was part of the soundtrack of our youth.
Willie says it was the same in Ballymena. "It was powerful the number of pigeons there were in days gone by. Every other garden had a shed. But those days are long since gone.
"I remember the time when Ballymena and District Homing Pigeon Club had around 60 members. Now there are only about 20. And I think all the clubs in Northern Ireland are exactly the same, with their memberships down by about a quarter."
Ironically, however, insiders say that, while the numbers of fanciers has declined, the enthusiasts of today tend to keep more birds than the old-timers did. "A lot of them have more birds than they need," says one man, ruefully.
The tradition among pigeon fanciers was always that fathers handed down their birds - and their love of them - to their sons. But Willie says that was now more the exception than the rule.
"Nowadays, there's so much else for young people, with their computer games and the like, that the racing has lost its appeal for young people. And keeping pigeons is getting quite expensive."
New hi-tech clocks, which record times in races, are pricey and, while many fanciers breed their own young birds, buying others can cost hundreds of pounds, which probably explains why thieves were targeting Harry McCloy's pigeons.
Down the years, pigeon racing was never regarded as a rich man's sport and, indeed, was rooted in working-class culture, but an illustration of just how big a business it has become was confirmed after an auction in January 2012 when 245 birds were sold on a Belgian website for more than £1.6m.
One pigeon of the Dolce Vita breed fetched a record breaking £209,000 from a Chinese shipping magnate, who bought it for breeding rather than racing in his home country, where pigeon fancying is a fast-growing and lucrative sport.
"That's one pigeon who's going to be an extremely busy boy, doing what he does best," says one fancier.
Last week in Ballymena, members of the local club were busy loading up their birds onto a specially adapted lorry for transportation to Penzance in Cornwall for a race back to Northern Ireland today.
The lorry picked up more birds from clubs across the province and, after crossing to Britain on a ferry, two drivers took it in turns to drive the 560 miles to the liberation point for what is normally a nine-hour flight for the pigeons.
Around 30,000 birds were due to be involved in today's race, organised by the Northern Ireland Provincial Amalgamation of Racing Pigeons (NIPA), just one of a number of associations, like the East Down Combine, the Ulster Federation and Irish National Flying Club, which are engaged in the sport here.
One of the longest-serving members of the Ballymena club, Bertie Blair (65) has been keeping pigeons for 43 years and clearly enjoys the sport immensely.
"My grandfather was very keen on the pigeons and he showed me the ropes. It was a case of watching and learning and I quickly discovered that it was a great hobby. It's a pity that it's a dying game."
Bertie's father and most of his seven brothers were keen footballers and one of them, Jeff Blair, played for Glenavon, whose Mourneview Park ground was used as a training ground … for young pigeons.
Bertie says: "I used to go with Jeff in his car to Lurgan and long before the kick-off I would set about 25 birds loose from the middle of the pitch as part of their training, which involves starting them off on short distances and increasing them, bit by bit. They have to learn to crawl before they can walk."
Links between football and pigeon racing aren't uncommon. A number of former stars in England are now big players in pigeon fancying.
One of them is Gerry Francis, the ex-Queen's Park Rangers and England international, and he recently hit the headlines with an angry attack on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, accusing them of ignoring the plight of his sport.
Francis is currently spearheading a campaign for the right to be allowed to protect racing pigeons from the ever-increasing population of birds of prey, like sparrow-hawks and peregrine falcons.
Ex-Rangers footballers Duncan Ferguson and Davie Wilson are also well-known fanciers, but perhaps more surprising is the fact that "Iron" Mike Tyson is an avid pigeon man and, further back in time, artist Pablo Picasso had a collection of Fantails and even named his daughter Paloma - Spanish for pigeon.
The Queen also has her Royal Pigeon Lofts at Sandringham with more than 200 birds.
Whether or not Her Majesty is an expert is unclear. But understanding the world of pigeon racing isn't exactly rocket science, or brain surgery. For the outsider, it's tougher. Much tougher.
Talking to pigeon fanciers doesn't always help penetrate the mysteries surrounding the sport. For the fanciers sometimes speak a language all of their own. And one of the most frequently asked questions is one of the hardest to answer.
Because even the most learned of scientific studies haven't been able to fully explain how pigeons find their way home from thousands of miles away.
The popular belief has always been that they followed their noses - and their companions - using natural and man-made landmarks to help guide them.
Other scientists suggested they used the earth's magnetic fields and the position of the sun, or stars, as aids to boost their navigational abilities.
But recently a US Geological Survey report said homing pigeons use low-frequency sound waves from their surroundings to mentally map out their environments and steer their way back to their bases.
Wherever the truth lies, pigeons have long been regarded as reliable carriers of important information.
The ancient Egyptians used them from the time of Moses to deliver messages about important visitors.
And during the First World War, more than 100,000 pigeons were enlisted to ferry communications back and forward to the front lines with consistently impressive results.
Sometimes, pigeons do get lost and weather conditions are often blamed with fog, rain and particularly high winds cited as factors which affect the birds' abilities to use their homing instincts. One of Bertie Blair's pigeons once went the wrong way in a race and ended up in Belgium.
But Bertie is completely honest when he's asked just how most of his pigeons can find their way back to their lofts.
"I just don't know. I've never been able to explain it," says Bertie, who still gets a buzz from seeing his pigeons winning races.
Another Ballymena club member who enjoys experiencing the winning feeling is Elke Sempey - one of the few women involved in pigeon racing here.
Elke admitted that she was a late-comer to the sport. Her husband, Martin, has been a fancier for more than 30 years, but she only became a convert four years ago.
"The passion just gradually grew on me. Martin had had pigeons out the back, but I didn't take much to do with them. But then the penny dropped and it all started to have a big effect on me," she says.
"It's now a bug, which has been hard to let go. Between our racers and our breeders, we have about 80 pigeons. I enjoy training them and I am really fond of them now and I do have a few favourites.
"I saw me crying down in the club because of one of them. It came home from a race with a broken leg and I nursed it for three weeks and, when it went away again for another competition, it returned with the other leg broken."
Elke restored the bird to health again, but it wasn't third time lucky in the next race.
"I was in tears as it went away in the lorry, but its troubles weren't over, because it got lost and never came home again. Falcons, or some birds of prey, must have got it."
Almost everyone involved in pigeon racing here would like to see more young people coming into the sport, but they're a rare breed.
In Ballymena, however, members are pinning their hopes for the future on the likes of 13-year-old Thomas McFall, whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather have all been pigeon fanciers and they're still winners.
Bertie Blair says: "Thomas is a great young lad and he's had a lot of success. If only we could get more people like him it would be fantastic."