Racing pigeons are athletes of the skies

There are pigeons - bane of town centres. And there are champion racing pigeons - true athletes, all toned muscles, disciplined training, incredible navigational skills. Sandra Carter investigates

WHILE city pigeons are considered something of a pest, your racing pigeon is highly prized and admired among pigeon fanciers, who have bred them over the centuries to attain amazing flying prowess. And it all comes back to the pigeon's homing instinct.A trained racing pigeon will return to its home loft where it was born from up to 1,000 miles away. Today this instinct is the basis for an all-consuming hobby among pigeon fanciers in the UK and abroad.Peter Twyford, who lives at Potters Bar and is a member of Hatfield and District Racing Pigeon Club, got involved with pigeon breeding and racing at the age of seven, when he joined his father and uncle. 'You have to be completely dedicated,' he explains. 'It's virtually a full-time job from April to September in the racing season. The pigeons need to be looked after, fed, the young ones cared for, and birds got ready to be sent off to races. You have to make sure the eggs are fertile and then ring the young at five or six days old.'His birds may get sent up to 295 miles away in Scotland: they are packed off along with other local competitors on a transporter on Friday, then released on Saturday and Peter will be waiting for their return in his back garden. Racing pigeons will fly a mile a minute for shorter flights, while from Scotland, on a sunny day with wind behind, they can travel at 50 miles an hour. Each bird is fitted with a tiny counterclock which will be put into a special clock on arrival home, so that the winners can be declared. 'I've had my share of winners,' Peter says proudly.And yes, you do get fond of pigeons. 'Not all come back safely. You lose a few to hazards such as telegraph poles or hawks. It can be upsetting as you get fond of them and have your favourites.Homing pigeons navigate by sensing the earth's magnetic field, though the instinct is still not fully understood'Sparrowhawks are a real problem these days. They fly down and kill the pigeons as they arrive home. I lost two this year in the garden.'Homing pigeons navigate by sensing the earth's magnetic field, though the instinct is still not fully understood. But to train a champion to keep returning straight home, the breeder selects for this characteristic along with other motivations. One method is to separate birds from their mates until they return from a long flight, so they get home fast.There are surprising numbers of pigeon lofts - some estimate the number of UK fanciers at a quarter of a million, including the royal family which maintains a loft at Sandringham.Get the old guys talking and they bemoan the changes: not enough youngsters willing to commit the time to the hobby, and the growth of big money prizes which mean that some people own birds for profit but get someone else to breed and care for them.But let's hope they keep at it. If the post offices all close and computer systems get overloaded, we just might be glad to use pigeon post once again.Man's oldest postal serviceUsing pigeons as message carriers goes back possibly 5,000 years. Certainly there are tales of their use to bring the results of the first Olympic Games in 776BC; to keep Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan in touch with their spreading empires; to bring news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. Reuters News Agency began in 1850s with homing pigeons.And they have proved invaluable in wartime when no other message can get through. One million pigeons served in the two world wars and are credited with saving thousands of lives. Birds of prey along the coasts of Britain were culled so that British pigeons could arrive home unhindered by predators, and the WWII Dickin Medal for animal gallantry was awarded to 32 pigeons.The most recent wartime use of pigeon post is in the 1991 Gulf War when Saddam Hussein's troops are believed to have used them when radio messages were being jammed.Have you noticed a pigeon flying around with a parachute strapped to its back? If so, it's probably acting the role of a war hero.Photos of this roleplay and people's memories of homing pigeons' wartime exploits will feature in an exhibition at Milton Keynes Gallery in July and August, called The Pigeon Archive.The event is the culmination of research by artist Lyndall Phelps, whose interest was sparked by seeing a stuffed pigeon suspended from a parachute at the Imperial War Museum. 'I found it amazing,' she says, 'and spent the next couple of years finding out all I could.'Lyndall visited old Lancaster Bombers to see where two pigeons were stored under the wireless operator's seat during many bombing missions in World War II. 'I find it incredibly poignant that the Lancaster Bomber, the iconic technical innovation of World War II, was relying on two humble pigeons. Their purpose was to fly back with a message if radio telecommunication was knocked out. If the plane was shot down they could be released with survivors' coordinates to fly back to base. They were amazing birds. They saved many lives.'Often a message was attached to the pigeon's leg. But for special operations, they were fitted with harnesses and backpacks and with parachutes.This year Lyndall has been working with a friendly pigeon fancier to make up these backpacks and parachutes and re-enact the process with his birds.In World War I pigeons were parachuted behind enemy lines fitted with miniature cameras, so that they could bring back vital information to base. Lyndall's pigeons have followed suit and taken video footage in flight which will be shown at the exhibition.

n The Pigeon Archive exhibition runs at Milton Keynes Gallery from July 4 to August 30.