The best things come to those who wait...
Published in TESS on 17 December, 2010 | By: Jean McLeish. Photogrpahs by Fraser Brand
A pigeon loft at Angus College is enabling pupils to learn about avian care and experience the thrill of their birds coming home.
His passion for pigeons is inspiring a new dimension to education at Angus College.
As a boy, Kevin Murphy learned about racing pigeons from his father and grandfather and he’s now encouraging a new generation to take up the sport.
The 39-year-old Director of Learning and Teaching Technology at Angus College in Arbroath has just won a Scottish Championship Silver Award in the Scottish National Flying Club with his racing pigeon ‘Rocket’.
But pigeon fanciers are an ageing breed and the need to rejuvenate the sport is critical, with even celebrity enthusiast Jack Duckworth from Coronation Street departing to the great pigeon loft in the sky.
Mr Murphy and local pigeon fanciers in Angus are driving efforts to attract new young blood to the sport with a new purpose built community loft in the college grounds. They’ve set up ACORD (Angus Community One-Loft Race Development) and secured £10,000 funding from Awards for All Scotland for the new facility.
Animal Care students at Angus College students use the pigeons to study avian care as part of their NC and HNC courses. And students, school pupils and individuals are now being encouraged to enjoy the thrill of racing their own birds by adopting a pigeon from the loft.
The pigeons also offer a range of cross-curricular CfE opportunities for learning and ACORD hopes to attract primary schools for the educational benefits as well as the racing entertainment. The loft has disabled access and will also be used by young people with learning difficulties.
As Kevin Murphy and Loft Manager Jim Bruce show off the new loft, the pigeons burble contentedly in their new designer home. “To get to know a pigeon is like knowing a person, knowing a footballer – knowing what button to press and knowing what motivates that individual,” says Kevin, gently opening up one of the nesting boxes where the birds breed.
“I always imagine it’s like being a football manager. When you are on the pitch, it’s your players that are playing for you, where we are sending our pigeons to the race. There is nothing greater than seeing a pigeon flying 500 or 600 miles on the day and he’s come home for you.”
Jim Bruce is ACORD Club Secretary and has the voluntary role of Loft Manager, overseeing its day to day management. Normally pigeon fanciers use individual lofts, but with the one loft formula the whole community can use this loft and all their birds race home to this location.
“These one-loft races are held all over the world, the biggest of all being in Sun City, South Africa with a prize fund of one million dollars,” says Mr Bruce.
This loft will breed and race pigeons on a more modest scale and individuals, clubs or school classes will also be able to adopt a pigeon. “They will compete against each other on a weekly basis during the racing season. They’ll be able to visit the loft to see their individual pigeons being prepared for racing and also attend the loft on race days to see them arrive home from the races,” says Jim, a retired engineer.
The birds can travel at 70 mph with the wind behind them after being transported by lorry from Scotland to the start points in France and Belgium.
Motivating racing pigeons is a sophisticated business. “If the birds are paired up, one of the systems that works quite well is that they are separated prior to the race. The males stay in here and the females will be in another section and they don’t get to see each other all week,” says Kevin, who’s a member of Arbroath Racing Pigeon Club.
But just before the race there’s a brief and tantalising reunion: “A glimpse of each other for ten fifteen minutes, no sex basically, and then in the basket and away to the race,” says Kevin, who keeps 100 pigeons in a loft in his garden at home.
Happy memories and anticipation of another reunion encourages the male birds across the miles. They may even drop off for a quick nap during these 17- hour long haul flights. “When they come home the male always has his hen there for him and that’s his reward. And he gets his hen all day on the Saturday after he comes back from the race,” he says.
Course Leader in Animal Care at Angus College Mr Chris Ditchburn says they teach two units on birds. “They learn anatomy, health and disease and a little bit of handling and about legislation to protect birds.”
Twenty year old student Meghan Leith has been looking round the loft with her classmates in HNC Animal Care: “I just can’t believe how they get back, it’s unbelievable,” says Meghan, who won a scholarship awarded by ACORD for best student in avian care.
“There are a lot of scientific theories about how it works,” says Kevin “whether it’s the sun, the solar rays or magnetic fields. There are some cracking examples where scientists have tried to determine whether there’s something in the bird’s beak that encourages it to come home and others have determined it’s the pigeon’s eyesight,” he says.
A champion racing pigeon can also be a worthwhile investment.“In the late eighties, early nineties there was a pigeon at public auction sold for £118,800. Since that, last year I think it was in Spain, there was a guy had sold his stock pigeons for a $1 million.”
But that’s not what motivates Kevin: “For me it’s not about money, it’s not about trying to say I’ve got the highest valued bird – it’s the best racing bird. Just now I have a two-year-old bird Rocket and he’s won six times competing against the whole of Scotland. The whole thrill of keeping them is sitting waiting for them. You could sit for hours, but that’s the enjoyment in it.”