The Crufts of pigeon fancying photo essay

Fanciers from all over Europe gather annually in Blackpool as the top show and racing pigeons compete to be crowned supreme champion. By Christopher Thomond

The British Homing World show of the year, in Blackpool, is one of the largest events in the world for pigeon enthusiasts, and attracts around 25,000 visitors. Sometimes billed as the Crufts of the pigeon community, there are trade stands, talks and films as well as the main event, the showing and judging of thousands of the top birds in the UK. It is also a social event and a chance for pigeon fanciers from various parts of the country to get together.

Judges and a young steward examining and rating the pigeons. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
  • Judges and and a young steward examining and rating the pigeons

Around 2,500 pigeons are on display, all trying to win best in show, with the winner going on to the supreme champion class. To enter this class a pigeon must have won at a pigeon show in the previous 12 months.

Len Lewis, then general manager of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA), came up with the idea of a national pigeon show in 1972, and the first was held at Doncaster racecourse the following year. It was decided that any profit made would be given to charity. One of the stewards had a granddaughter with spina bifida, and so a donation was made to the Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus (ASBAH, now called Shine). The show continued at Doncaster until 1977 when the FCI, an international body, asked the RPRA to host an Olympiad. The organisers had to find a larger venue and so the show moved to the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, where it has remained.

Ive been into pigeons for two and a half years. I have about 80-90 birds and I brought 15 here today. I dont really hang around with younger kids a lot. When I sit at school I look out the window and there is a big building where sometimes lost racing pigeons go. Ill be looking at the bird, and the teacher will shout. They get me in trouble sometimes! (Lewis Hardaker, 13)

Jessica Ewing, eight, from Bathgate in Scotland, with one of her young pigeons. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Lewis Hardaker, 13, buying young pigeons from Lane Head House Lofts. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
  • Jessica Ewing, eight, from Bathgate in Scotland, with one of her young pigeons, and Lewis Hardaker, 13, buying young pigeons from Lane Head House Lofts


Some of Mark Braithwaites pigeons. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Award-winning pigeon fancier Mark Braithwaite, below, preparing his entrants at his home loft in Blackpool, says: My grandad used to race pigeons, my dad took on from there and started showing. When I was a kid I just got into it and following on my son got into it but hes 19 and not into it as much as he was. Hell probably come back into it eventually when hes a bit older.

You get your own line going then buy the odd one now and again to bring some new blood in thats how we do it. I dont buy too many. When I moved in here I just had a garden shed, 10ft x 6ft, which wasnt really adequate, so this year Ive started a little project building a loft, 16ft x 8ft now, with an aviary on the front so they can get out in the summer. Im a builder so Ive done it myself. Its getting there, its nearly finished.

Mark Braithwaite at home in Blackpool prepares his 26 entrants. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
  • Mark Braithwaite at home in Blackpool

He adds: I clean the birds out every night. I clean the drinkers out, give them water, give them a few tonics that we keep secret and dont want to give away to anybody weve all got our little secret things we give them which we dont like to pass on. A few of our tricks come from my dad and my grandad, and then Tommy Freeman, an old fella who had a lot of success but has sadly died now, he sort of gave us a few tips too.

Im taking 26 to the show: class 1 adult cock, class 2 adult hen, then yearling cock, yearling hen, young cock, young hen and on

Pigeon fancier Mark Braithwaite at home in Blackpool. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

A pair of Marks pigeons.

Mark Braithwaite with one of the birds.

In preparation for the show I bathed them all on Tuesday and put some tonic in the bathwater, and then tonight on the eve of the show its just a matter of making sure the feathers are clean and the flights are straight. If any flights are bent we straighten them out using the steam from a kettle. Tomorrow there could be 100 pigeons in any class, so if you get a card [a top-10 certificate] youve done alright, youre there or there about. Its just down to that one judge on the day. Another day another judge could pick another bird. If the judge is from down south they prefer a smaller pigeon but if theyre from Yorkshire then itll be a bigger pigeon that wins tomorrow. Theres no actual standard for them so its just pot luck really.


Sisters Denise Kean and Jill Fisher preparing their birds on arrival at the show.

Jill Fisher, above right, setting up with her sister Denise Kean, says: Weve come up today from Bideford in Devon with my full team of 32 and Denise has another 18. Our morning started at 2.30 when we started packing the birds. Were going through our birds now making sure theres no muck or dirt on them from travelling, making sure their feathers are right, clean their feet and make sure theyre in tip-top condition so that when we get to the pen we can just put them in, saving time. If they get any staining during transport then we use lighter fluid to lift it away, and because its lighter fluid it evaporates quickly whereas water would stay for a while. It means by the time theyre in the pen ready for judging theyre dry again and nice and clean. They need lots of preparation, good baths, good food, really basic stuff.

Usually the night before we pick them and clean them, get up in the morning and clean them, then when we get to the show clean them again. If you want them right, you have to repeat it.

Denise Kean preparing a bird.

Jill Fisher preparing a bird.

Alistair Tankard and Isabel Mackenzie.
  • Clockwise from top left: Denise Kean, Jill Fisher, and Alistair Tankard and Isabel Mackenzie

Alistair Tankard, above with his partner Isabel Mackenzie, cleaning muck out of their pigeons cages, says: Its nicer for the judge if they pick a pigeon up without a load of poo in the pen, so we clean them as late as we can. Ive kept them since I was seven years old, so thats 41 years. It started when I picked one up in the street, took it home and put it in a rabbit hutch. I was walking to school in Otley and picked another one up and they had eggs and I went from there and just got the bug. I started racing them but we moved up to Scotland; there were no racing clubs up there but they did have show clubs so I started showing them. They have a bad reputation: I think they called them flying rats on Coronation Street, and people think theyre vermin but theyre not. Most people dont realise how much goes into looking after them. Im up at six every morning and straight in the loft with a cup of tea, cleaning the loft until half seven when I go off to work.

Alistair has a plaque on his loft door that says: Lost: wife and pigeon reward for the pigeon. How cool is that? I know where his loyalties lie. (Isabel)

Isabel adds: I come to the big shows. I love it, its my only holiday. Its wonderful, everyones so lovely and theres such a camaraderie with all of them. Its a lottery this is, you can do well in your regional shows but then this is the show of the year. If youre lucky enough to get a ticket its an amazing bonus because youre up against the best of the best. Its a lottery who gets supreme champion, its just up to the judge on the day so good luck to everyone.