Gareth Watkins' long awaited trip to see
Possibly the most successful 550 mile fancier in the UK
Andy Parsons holding the great War Paint
On a recent visit to the Epsom Show in early November 2014, I arranged to call in to see Andy Parsons of Salisbury on our return journey to South Wales. Andy, as many will have noticed when reading the results of the BBC, CSCFC and NFC races from Palamos, Bergerac, Bordeaux or Tarbes, has a habit of clocking multiple pigeons to appear on the results even when most fanciers are struggling to clock a single pigeon. Such has been the consistency of the Parsons pigeons in these long distance National races that it led one fancier, himself a King's Cup winner from Tarbes, to comment to me that in his opinion Andy Parsons was the best Tarbes fancier in England. With an endorsement such as that I couldn't wait to visit the Parsons set up situated on the outskirts of the beautiful city of Salisbury.
So it was that we arrived at Andy and wife Janice's lovely detached cottage set in the Wiltshire countryside on a fine autumnal Sunday morning to view Andy's team of long distance "war horses".
First birds to hand were the stock cocks and what a classy bunch they were. Mainly of Eric Cannon x George Burgess bloodlines they were mostly retired racers that had been tested at 550 miles on four or five occasions before being retired to the stock loft. There were a couple of exceptions to this rule in the shape of some cocks obtained from Keith Bush bred from the best of Keith's 700 mile family. All were in excellent condition and the four that stood out for me were "Big Sam" a multiple prize-winner at the distance bred from the best of the Deweerdts. Then came the Blue Cannon Cock a top stud cock for Andy along with his sons. Finally, the one that really took my eye - the great red black splashed cock "War Paint". This one has now firmly established himself in my all time top five pigeons that I've handled in over 40 years of loft visits in the UK and Belgium. Just on medium sized, he had an engine purring away inside him like a nuclear reactor. He not only handled well but he looked the part as well, as the photograph that accompanies this report will testify.
The main OB racing loft
After handling the stock cocks we moved on to the stock hens and these were if anything, better than the stock cocks! All had a little depth to the front of the keel but not deep keeled, leaving plenty of room for the "engine" - heart. As with the stock cocks, they all had superb eyes with plenty of character and colour and the blue hen and her three daughters handled would certainly grace any loft in the country.
The lofts that house these birds are fairly extensive as Andy certainly doesn't overcrowd the inmates. All lofts were absolutely snuff dry with excellent ventilation and light. One of the racing lofts had a deep litter of dry droppings and straw whilst the other lofts were cleaned regularly. The main racing loft had an aviary attached so the birds could get out into the elements when confined to the loft. All lofts faced south with the spire of Salisbury Cathedral clearly visible over the fields to the south.
That then is my impressions of the birds and set up of Andy Parsons. A loft containing more 500 + milers than I have handled previously during my time as a pigeon scribe. I'll now let Andy himself tell you his story in his own words.
"I started with pigeons from the age of 9yrs and raced at the age of 14yrs. I am now 62 so I have had birds a long time. Up until 1988 I raced mainly club. My first birds were the Vandenbroukes, then Verheyes and a few F. Bloor’s. During these years I had varying amounts of success, then in 1988 I sent 2 hens to Pau National, clocked 1 on the day and this changed my view on racing pigeons completely.
Interior of the happy loft
I was always drawn to distance racing even in the early days, reading articles about the likes of Norman Southwell, the great Vic Robinson, then later it would be Eddie Newcombe, Jim Biss and of course Eric Cannon and locally Reg Jarvis, the secretary of the NFC at the time. Reg introduced me to the Carson Brothers birds (I had them too early). Much later in 1996, he also introduced me to Eric Cannon. Reg quietly encouraged us all who were interested in distance pigeons.
I moved to my present address in 1982 and my loft has evolved over the years and a good friend jokingly calls it "rustic". I say, ‘it’s not the loft it’s the birds that count’. I have 4 lofts with a total measurement of 67 feet. I use deep litter in the stock loft and one of my racing lofts, the rest are cleaned out regularly. I keep 16 pairs of stock birds, most of which are retired Tarbes or Palamos birds. They enter the stock loft when retired if good enough and they would normally need to have flown 550-675 miles 3-5 times beforehand. They are not in their long as they would be 6 years old by then. If I introduce a new one into the stock loft it would mean I have to remove one; this keeps the standard high.
I also introduce the odd bird from other lofts and one or two young ones from my own; they are given even less time to prove themselves at stock. I now keep 100 racers, usually about 50 old birds and 50 yearlings. I breed around 80 young birds for myself mainly bred in March to May but this also includes a few summer bred ones. Amongst the later ones I usually find a good one or two.
I pair my birds between February and March, depending how things are. It doesn’t really matter as most of my racers won’t be rearing anyway. I let them have a round of eggs then separate, they then fly separately and will only meet when they arrive home from a race if they are lucky.
My target race has always been NFC Tarbes and the last two years I have allowed the birds to go together the night before basketing.
The YB loft and happy loft to the right
Going back to the early part of the year, when the birds are separated, I exercise the cocks early morning and then again around 5 pm, each time for around an hour. As they get fitter they fly freely doing what all fit widowhood cocks do. The hens are exercised around 10am and are flagged at first for up to an hour. The last year or so they have been flying freely as well. I find that as the hens get fitter they become much more awkward, and the more awkward they become the better they are when Tarbes comes around. My training methods have changed over the last few years. I used to train hard but now I give 2 -3 at 20 miles and about 3 at 50-70 miles. The yearlings, because I rarely race them as young birds, may get one or two more. I aim to get everything into the early channel races with the club, Classic or National.
The last few years I have stopped training as soon as racing starts. Because I don’t race many young birds I have found my yearlings, including late breds, would need some work i.e. 2-3 channel races. I then stop most of them, but often race a few, usually first crosses,to Bergerac or Bordeaux. This will give them a good test. For example this year, 2014 I sent 8 birds to the CSCFC Bergerac, 6 of which were yearlings. I lost 1 and was 1st section 5th open with my first bird home, which was a yearling. From Bordeaux, with the BBC, I sent 8 birds 4 of which were yearlings, and my first one was 15th open on the day, with very few home. This again was a yearling. The remaining yearlings were also in the result. In my opinion this proves that it's not necessary to race them as young birds although I do send the odd young bird to channel races just for sport.
The old birds must all go to the distance and they usually have 2 channel races as preparation, the second one being Messac with the CSCFC/BBC or Cholet with the NFC, then into Tarbes. Although this year I had 4 make a mistake from Carentan in their first race, so they were lifted straight from Carentan in to Tarbes.
As there was an 8 week gap between Carentan and Tarbes, I gave them a 50 mile toss 9 days before Tarbes. They all arrived from Tarbes, 3 being high enough up on the result to win carded positions. I would say that as long as they are fit and good enough they will score despite us. The little training I do would be North or East in any weather, young birds and old birds alike. My later young birds have a few tosses in the winter month, usually up to 50 miles.
Cocks' section in the main racing loft
My young birds are kept as natural as possible and fed on a high protein feed and allowed to grow on. The few that I race will go to the channel then they will be rested. I don’t judge my young birds or yearlings on performance. If I did I would never have any birds to send to Tarbes! All my birds are given minerals and grit but very little else. My birds are fed by the hopper which is full of beans, and they also have a cheaper mix in the morning. As the birds go further and are worked harder, there would be more carbohydrates added to the diet. A few days before marking for the distance races the oil seed mixture will be introduced; they will then generally leave the beans alone. I use very little in the way of medication but I always canker and worm my birds at least twice a year.
Over the last 22 years I have developed my own family of birds. I started with birds from G. Burgess and E. Cannon, and I crossed these with success. I then added to them in 1998 a daughter of Princess from M. Spencer of Barnoldswick. This produced a good hen which has become my best stock hen to date. In 2000, Len Painter from Southampton gifted me a red cock and this also proved to be a good pigeon. Since then I have tried other birds with varying success. In 2006, I visited Mark Gilbert and introduced a few of his Deweerdts. I crossed these straight into my best and I am now reaping the benefits. In 2009 I introduced a few birds from Keith Bush, again crossing them directly into my base pigeons with excellent results. I now have 3 lines within my family. I change the pairings yearly but very rarely go close. I test every bird at 2 years old at 550 miles and continually move stock birds on, looking at the percentage of the birds remaining from my pairings. As I only judge my birds at 550 miles they can fail in their prep races but not at Tarbes. Some of my best birds have made mistakes e.g. 2013 my 12th open Tarbes CSCFC and my 10th open NFC, both had nights out in their final race before Tarbes. I always give my 2 year olds a second chance at Tarbes as they are usually under raced and my birds seem to peak at 3-4 years old.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE FAMILY
I remember reading Jim Biss saying that in his opinion, Palamos was the hardest race point. I believe he developed his family using these Palamos pigeons as his base and introducing birds from the continent into them, I think he was right. I use hard day birds as my base. In fact over the last few years that’s all you would need as the distance races have been so difficult, but this will change. With the mid-day lib with the NFC and of course with most of the 2 day races within the race calendar, we will find the best of our birds will evolve into 2 and 3 day pigeons. This is not what I want. I am of course talking about us in the south, flying 500-600 mile races. We must test our birds with early morning liberations therefore I test a number of my birds each year with the CSCFC at Pau. Anything which comes on the day from an early lib or makes the loft early the following morning are worth breeding from. Most of my best National birds were tested that way or bred from those birds. The CSCFC gives you the most honest test you can get as it reduces the luck element to the minimum. The same will apply to Palamos as they have also got to do it all on their own. I don’t care how many are in the convoy, to get a bird from there on the second day is a special one. By putting 2 day Palamos/Barcelona pigeons and day birds from Tarbes into my stock loft it has certainly kept my family strong.
The NFC Tarbes is not the hardest in the racing calendar but is the hardest race to win, with an early or mid-day lib, it doesn’t matter although I feel they should get them up as early as they can and not wait for the perfect day, weather wise. On liberations, I think that if the birds have a good start weather wise I would get them up early, and take my chance, as long holdovers, as with the NFC this year, can lead to heavy losses. Therefore you may as well have taken a chance in the first place, although I would never release distance birds late in the day. In my view the birds are too fit and don’t get enough flying time before darkness. We are not like the continentals, we don’t have lights to help our birds along the way, ours have to cross a very dark channel.
Andy in the YB loft
One thing I do know, those who race the distance whatever organisations they fly with and are consistent, must have good pigeons. It doesn’t matter how good we think we are, it is the birds and their breeding that counts.
To help newcomers and the less successful, I would hope all fanciers would not put their mediocre pigeons into the market place to sell. We should always question why they are selling these pigeons unless they are leaving the sport. When I went to Eric Cannon I purchased 5, 6 and 7 year olds with minor positions but bred from his best pigeons and the best I could afford. To go back further than grandchildren would give you little chance. To keep re-introducing these inferior pigeons into the market place will only disillusion newcomers and other fanciers trying to improve their stock. It’s worth remembering even the top performing pigeons breed very few good ones.
Developing and maintaining a distance family is my passion and is so rewarding but you have to be very single minded. Good pigeons come in all shapes and sizes because of the distance they fly, but they seem to revert to the type of bird I like. For example my NFC Merit cock, Big Sam is a 1st cross. He is the biggest bird I have ever sent to Tarbes and one of the best ones, but when paired back into my originals his young birds conform to my type. I don’t know how to describe what I like but as soon as I handle a bird I know if I like it. I certainly don’t like shallow pigeons, unless they win!
Some of my most pleasurable times with pigeons are as follows: clocking 2 cocks from Palamos on the 2nd day when there were only 7 in the country and clocking the first 4 in the section from Tarbes in the CSCFC on the same day. Also clocking 6 on the day from NFC San Sebastian. There is nothing like a day bird flying 14 hours on the wing but this year winning 2nd Open NFC Tarbes and the Langstone Gold Cup has been very special.
Some recent performances include:-
1st section 8th Open San Sebastian NFC clocking 6 on the day.
1st section 4th Open Palamos.
1st section 19th Open Palamos.
50th & 59th Open Pau NFC.
1st section 5th Open BBC San Sebastian.
13th Open CSCFC San Sebastian.
75th & 76th Open NFC Pau.
1st section 39th Open NFC Saintes/Pau.
53rd Open NFC Tarbes clocking 5 birds on the day.
3rd Open Tarbes CSCFC. During these years there were numerous other prizes from Palamos & Tarbes.
14th Open Tarbes NFC 14 1/2 hours on the wing plus 53rd, 63rd, 119th, 164th, 182nd & 183rd Open. Liberated with the International convoy.
2nd, 44th, 45th & 60th Open CSCFC Tarbes.
41st, 76th, 80th, 82nd, 110th & 133rd Open CSCFC Bergerac.
55th, 70th, 119th, 151st & 157th Open NFC Tarbes.
7th, 8th, 10th, 11th, 18th, 23rd, 64th, 114th, 133rd & 173rd Open CSCFC Tarbes taking the first four positions in the SW section.
2nd & 3rd section, 3rd & 5th Open Palamos BBC when there were only seven birds timed on the second day.
1st section 5th Open, 25th, 43rd, 56th & 130th Open NFC Tarbes.
30th, 32nd, 42nd, 54th, 11th, & 145th Open CSCFC Tarbes.
15th & 74th Open Bergerac CSCFC.
10th, 29th, 41st, 55th, 61st, 72nd, 84th, 91st, 159th, 168th & 181st Open NFC Tarbes winning a Merit Award.
8th, 11th, 12th, 16th, 18th, 75th & 82nd Open CSCFC Tarbes.
16th Open CSCFC Bergerac.
2nd, 34th, 36th, 118th, 120th, 142nd, 144th & 170th Open NFC Tarbes.
1st section 3rd, 31st, 39th, 40th & 48th Open CSCFC Tarbes.
1st section 5th, 6th & 47th Open CSCFC Bergerac.
15th, 59th & 64th Open BBC Bordeaux.
Winning Old bird & Combined Aves with CSCFC plus 11 trophies.
With the NFC:- Langstone Gold Cup, Eric Cannon and Oliver Dix Trophies plus Fred Hannis Trophy, Jarvis Trophy and the Moonraker Cup. All these won in 2014 season.
In the last few years 3 x 1st section with the NFC in the Grand National race.
SOME OF THOSE WHO HAVE HELPED ALONG THE WAY
My influences are many, all the good distance men I have talked to over the years, and they all know who they are as I have asked their advice at different times. Eric Cannon definitely on breeding and of course George Burgess. If I want some common sense straight talking I would have a chat with my friend Keith Bush. Finally, a word or two on one or two of my good friends one being Mark Gower. Mark and I discuss pigeons at length regularly and all topics relating to our feathered friends, sharing our knowledge and experiences, enhancing both of our chances of winning with the pigeons.
1st Sect 5th Open NFC Tarbes
1st Sect 7th Open Tarbes CSCFC
2nd NFC Tarbes
2nd Tarbes CSCFC
3rd Palamos BBC
10th NFC Tarbes
15th NFC Tarbes
Dam of 2nd Open NFC Tarbes
Keith Bush hen, a top stock bird.
Dam of the Parsons loft
3rd & 11th CSCFC Tarbes
There you have it then, a master class in how to breed and prepare pigeons to consistently succeed at the distance. Many thanks Andy on sharing your thoughts with the fancy. I'm sure a lot of fanciers will have learned a great deal from this article. Congratulations on your many wins and here's wishing you even more success in the years to come. - Gareth Watkins.
Elimar - November 2014