The pastime of pigeon-fancying

Royal Loft Manager Len Rush. Royal Loft Manager Len Rush.

Monday, August 18, 2014
1:37 PM

Traditionally a working class sport, the most prestigious post in the pigeon-fancying world is based in Norfolk, where the Royal Loft at Sandringham is home to the Queen’s racing pigeons. ROWAN MANTELL reports as part of our series of features inspired by the Wonder of Birds exhibition at Norwich Castle.

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Royal Loft manager Len Rush in a picture from 1963. He was appointed to the position the previous year.Royal Loft manager Len Rush in a picture from 1963. He was appointed to the position the previous year.

Everyone knows the Queen adores corgis and horses – but she is also a knowledgeable and committed pigeon-fancier.

Her Majesty has her own racing pigeon lofts at Wolferton, near Sandringham, and regularly visits the birds when she is in Norfolk.

Her pigeons are the descendants of birds given to the Royal Family in 1886 and have not only won many races over the past 150 years, but have also been honoured for their war service.

Royal Loft manager Peter Farrow has been in charge of Her Majesty’s pigeons for almost three years, and has been racing his own pigeons for more than 30.

Pigeon History

• The earliest recorded reference to the use of messenger pigeons comes from Pharaoh Ramses III, around 1200 BC, when they were used to carry news of the flood state of the Nile.
• Pigeons were released in ancient Greece to carry news of Olympic winners.
• Roman ships would release pigeons to alert their home port to their imminent arrival. 
• A regular pigeon post service between Baghdad and Syria was established by 1167.
• The national headquarters of British pigeon racing is in Cheltenham, where pecking pigeons led to the discovery of the town’s famous spa waters in the 18th century. 
• In the 1800s there was an official pigeon postal service throughout France and this was expanded to London in 1870.
• The outcome of the Battle of Waterloo was first delivered by a pigeon to England.

Speaking soon after he took over at the Royal Loft, Peter was impressed by the Queen’s in-depth knowledge of pigeon rearing and racing. “When she visits she wants to know how they are all doing,” he said.

The Queen’s pigeons take part in local and national races and it was the royal pigeons, which he now looks after, that first inspired Peter. His uncle lived next door to long-serving Royal Loft manager, Carlo Napolitano, who passed much of his expertise to Peter.

Until 2012 Peter, of Terrington St Clement, was a landscape gardener, with a passion for pigeon racing. His own loft was well respected but he said he was deeply honoured to be trusted with the Queen’s pigeons. “You can’t get any higher than being Royal Loft Manager!”

He still loves the thrill of winning a race and said: “They can do 200 miles in three to three-and-a-half hours and when that bird pops out of the sky it’s so exciting. You can see it coming from a couple of miles away.

A rare PDSA Dickin medal which is due to go on sale at Spink in Bloomsbury on 30th November on a photograph of Commando. The medal was originally awarded for gallantry with the resistance in France during 1942. PA Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth.A rare PDSA Dickin medal which is due to go on sale at Spink in Bloomsbury on 30th November on a photograph of Commando. The medal was originally awarded for gallantry with the resistance in France during 1942. PA Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth.

“Nobody knows exactly how they do it. My theory is that they use the sun and the earth’s magnetic field, the same as migrating birds.”

The only difference between racing pigeons and wild pigeons and doves is that racing pigeons have been selectively bred over generations for their stamina, speed, strength and homing instinct.

Training involves taking them successively further from the loft and scientists believe that their homing instinct comes from a combination of magnetism (they have iron particles in their beak which can act as a compass) navigation using the sun and low frequency sound-waves, and learning routes by landmarks, smells or even along man-made features such as roads.

Pigeons race from April to September, dispatched to release sights across the country and powering home at an average speed of around 50 miles per hour - although top speeds of up to 90 miles per hour have been clocked.

Wonder of Birds

• The Wonder of Birds exhibition, runs at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery until Sunday September 14.

• This major exhibition brings together nature, art and culture in a wide-ranging, thought-provoking and fascinating exploration of the cultural impact of birds on our lives.

• The exhibition will give you the chance to come face to face with such famous birds as the extinct Passenger Pigeon, the fate of which is a powerful illustration of man’s impact on the natural world.

On Thursday the castle is joining forces with the RSPB for a Family Event (10am-4.30pm), with bird-themed events including storytelling. Included in normal admission (with a small charge for some activities).

The Royal Loft is home to around 160 mature pigeons and 80 young birds and when a winner arrives a highlight of the official post of Royal Loft Manager is being able to inform Her Majesty of her high flying successes.

HERO PIGEONS

• Pigeons were used extensively to carry messengers in both the First and the Second World Wars. 
• During the Second World War almost a quarter of a million birds were used by the army, RAF and police, the fire service, Home Guard and even Bletchley Park. 
• Containers of pigeons were dropped by parachute for Resistance workers in France, Belgium and Holland. All RAF bombers and reconnaissance aircraft carried pigeons and, if the aircraft had to ditch, the plane’s co-ordinates were sent back with the pigeon to its RAF base so that a search and rescue operation could be launched.

To mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012, current Royal Loft manager Peter Farrow releases a pigeon outside the Norwich Gates at Sandringham. Picture: Ian Burt.To mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012, current Royal Loft manager Peter Farrow releases a pigeon outside the Norwich Gates at Sandringham. Picture: Ian Burt.

• During the Second World War, of the 53 Dickin Medals presented for animal bravery, 32 of them were presented to pigeons.
• A pigeon called GI Joe saved the lives of British troops who were preparing to take an Italian town. British forces found no resistance from the Germans and entered the town unchallenged, as the US planned to bomb the town. With radio contact broken GI Joe flew at 60mph back to base with the message that the town had been taken, arriving just in time to halt the bombardment.
• Homing pigeons were kept by police in remote regions of India until 2002, to provide emergency communications following natural disasters.

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