My first contact with Geoff Kirkland came way back in 1983 when, with the enthusiasm of a teenager, I compiled a list of over 100 questions on how to win and sent these off to three dozen of the previous year's big race winners. About ten of these questionnaires came back to me filled in, one of these being from Geoff. In due course a trip to his loft was arranged and I remember very clearly the day my father and I arrived at his then home in Coalport. It was the day after the National Flying Club's disastrous Sennen Cove race (this being the year of Paramyxovirus and the ban on overseas racing) and Geoff's main widowhood loft was near empty, a whole host of his best cocks having failed to return. Lesson number one - even the best pigeons can be lost.
Geoff soon bounced back from this disappointment, however, in fact he went from strength to strength winning, for example, 1st Open BBC Nantes in 1987 and 1st Open MNFC Angouleme in 1989, both races being won by 'The Pest'.
Fast forward now to 2004. This is Geoff's fifth year racing to his new location in Longsdon near Leek in Staffordshire and he is once more peppering the results of the major races, landing prizes such as 1st Open BICC Falaise. Recently I paid Geoff and his wife Barbara a visit and I thought I would take as the theme for this article, to what degree his methods and ideas - and indeed pigeons - have evolved in the 21 years since he so kindly completed that (very) lengthy questionnaire.
THE LOFT AND FORM
For racing I have a conventional wooden loft and a breeze block/brick-built loft which was standing when we moved here and was formerly used as a workshop. The wooden loft, which measures 16ft by 8ft, is built along the same lines as the lofts I had at Coalport; it has frosted glass covering the top two-thirds of the front along its entire length. No air enters the front unless the sliding door is pulled back and the air leaves through a two-inch gap all the way along the back of the loft just where the wall meets the roof. If it gets very warm - to a temperature where I feel uncomfortable being in there myself - I open the front and drop a series of slatted blinds. I've always worked on the basis that, although not critical, about 25-26oC is what you want, so anything over that is perhaps too warm - but none of us really knows, do we? Both of the racing lofts face south-east and so get the sun for most of the day. When the temperature of the wooden loft is around 80oC, the brick loft will be around 70oC, and the latter also warms up and cools down more slowly. I thought the brick loft was slightly too dark and cold and I had planned to install roof lights but I have found that form still comes at the same time as it does in the wooden loft, so I haven't bothered. The wooden loft has a pent roof, and the brick loft is tiled. The wooden loft has 24 nest boxes, all being along the back wall, and a grilled floor, whilst the brick loft has boxes on three walls and so far I've only got around to putting grilles down in half of it; the rest is concrete. The air enters this loft through the traps and through about a foot's depth of wire below the traps. I'd always fancied having boxes facing each other, having seen such an arrangement at Pol Bostyn's, who reckoned they made the cocks more possessive, but whether we read too much into these things, I don't know.
What conclusions have I reached about what one needs in a loft? To be honest, none at all other than the pigeons couldn't care less.
FEED - COALPORT COMPARED TO TODAY
I still hopper feed. I start off with good intentions thinking I'll feed individual pigeons with individual titbits but basically 99.9% of my feeding is through the hopper twice daily and the only thing left after they've tucked in will be a little bit of barley, which I use as a regulator - if they eat the barley promptly, I give them more food; if they leave it, I don't. The main difference in how I feed now compared to the 1980s is they get a lot less protein when racing and not much seed either but a lot more fats, and I use shelled sunflower seeds now rather than peanuts on account of reading of problems arising from feeding peanuts, although I have to say I haven't actually experienced any such problems myself.
For the early short races they don't have much of the fat mix, then as the races get longer, their last four feeds will be fats, and for the real long distance they will have fats for the last four days before basketing. To sum up, I used to feed the traditional depurative and widowhood mix way, plus peanuts, now I feed less protein and more fats. I also used to add vitamins to the water but now I put all their vitamins on the corn; the only thing I put in the water when racing (apart from treatments) is tea.
Instead of depurative I now use a Diat mix in the morning and, inland, Gerry Plus is my base feed in the evening. Over the Channel they have a base of 50% Gerry Plus and 50% Versele-Laga Super Widowhood Plus. Feeding this way they seem to blow up better in the last few days before basketing. In fact, by the time I get to the club for marking and take them out of the basket, they seem to have blown up even more. They are full bodied but buoyant - never even slightly overweight - and when they come home from a race, the real good ones will have lost only a little weight.
On return from a race I put rehydration salts in the water and they have the Diat mix, then they'll be back on half Diat and half racing mix by Monday morning and the full racing mix by Monday night. Sunday is a day of rest and they have a bath (usually without anything added) and then by Tuesday they'll be back into full swing at exercise time.
They are fastened out for an hour to an hour and a half twice a day. I have never forced pigeons to fly and they don't fly for the whole time; they are up and down, striking off from the loft as if they are frightened and sometimes they go off like youngsters. Their morning exercise is usually after 7am (not being able to get up!) and on cold, dirty days I sometimes keep them in because you can ruin their form by exercising them in bad weather. They will have perhaps four tosses before their first race then none thereafter unless they are yearlings which I am educating to return to their hens. In the early races they all tend to go every week and sometimes twice a week. This is purely to get the necessary work into them (in my opinion they need to be race hardened) and there is no motivation at all. You can achieve super form by just leaving them at home but I prefer them to become race hardened by going through the whole process of them being basketed, taken to the club and learning how to look after themselves in the transporter. I think the mental side is more important than a lot of people realise.
One thing I have learnt is that cocks feel stress more than hens do. I've had this proven to me by taking race birds, cocks and hens, up to Raymond Ingram's in Cumbria on a Sunday after a race to have them tested. The cocks will have a low cocci count (which will be back down by Tuesday without treatment anyway) yet the hens will be clear!
HORSES FOR COURSES
Getting pigeons to fly 300 miles is easy; 400 miles is that bit harder. When you get to 500 miles the number drops markedly, even for a good loft, and when you come to 600 miles you are dealing with a different animal altogether. Their bone structure is lighter and their metabolism is different. Some of the old English pigeons such as the Spangles, and the Continental van der Wegens tend to be light-framed like this and are not quick to come from anywhere. If a pigeon returns home from, say, Nantes (404 miles) shattered, then you know that Nantes is its limit. You cannot put the extra reserves into them no matter what you feed or how skillful or clever you think you are.
To breed for the longer distances, I don't advocate pairing a sprinter to a long-distance bird but a long-distance bird to a middle-distance bird can be very good, but it's best to then breed back to one or the other in the next generation so that you have 75% distance or 75% middle-distance in the breeding. Piet Deweerdt once wrote that if you want to compete at the distance, first of all start with pedestrians, then add to these the traits you desire, such as tenacity. Do not start with fast pigeons and go the other way by trying to add stamina - it doesn't work.
In my own loft I have the Engels and the Thas and although certain lines of both can cope with Bergerac I think both will do better once crossed with my introductions from a Belgian extreme-distance fancier called Maevart. The Engels are good on-the-day birds at 400 miles plus. When they come home they are really trying and go through the window like a rocket. However, I have sent them to Bergerac and they are not the same. If it was a 1500ypm a day they would be but we don't have many of them at that distance! The Thas are the same. They do Saintes okay and, crossed correctly, will get further. If I had to put the Thas and the Engels up against my Desmet Matthys of the 1980s, in a fictitious race out of Angoulême on a 12-hour day, I would say the Thas would match the Matthys but the Engels would be stretched. They'd be right at their limit. But I'd back the Engels over the Matthys at 350 miles because they have that little bit more tenacity. The Bauwens I used to have were very similar in type to the Maevarts I'm trying. It was difficult to win inland with them, and they were at their best from Nantes through to Pau. The Engels are like the Matthys for build, with proper good shoulders, nicely shaped, tapering away at the back and neither deep nor shallow. Remember, though, that when I introduced the Matthys in 1975 they were middle-distance birds. The Bauwens and the Maevarts tend to be smaller. Not all have length; they are very buoyant and mentally very tough. You can keep sending them.
READY OR NOT
I've never found much difference in the development rate of long-distance birds compared to middle-distance and sprint pigeons. I treat them all the same and expect them to put their best foot forward as youngsters; they have to be thereabouts and I definitely don't want them coming the next day! The first bird I timed from Bergerac this year had been everywhere and had never failed or returned tired.
Maevart sends what he thinks are his six best yearlings to Barcelona each year and, likewise, I send plenty of yearlings to 500 and 600 miles. I know we used to take it more slowly but times have changed. I can remember that if you had several on the day from Nantes on a reasonable flying day, you were considered to have done well but you wouldn't even give it a thought now. The number of birds that would make Saintes on the day would be as low as 1% but now even at Bergerac, 580 miles, you've got to be in on the day to win - and plenty of yearlings are proving themselves up to it.
THE BIG DIFFERENCE
The two main things which have changed are health and feed. Nowadays I don't give so many blind cures. Basically for canker I give them Ridzol or a quarter of a Flagyl tablet prior to breeding, and I test for worms and, if necessary, treat with Levamisole. They have another quarter of a Flagyl tablet before racing, then another quarter every three or four weeks during racing. I used to treat for cocci but not any more and for respiratory I use Ornicure or a Henk de Weerdt product before racing and again during racing when I think they need it. Also I use nose drops and can see the difference in their wattles two or three days later. I always use vitamins on the corn after treatments.
Ten days before a big race I give the candidates another quarter of a Flagyl tablet, then on the corn they have Dynamic or multivits, although I am now leaning more towards the amino acid approach. I inject for pox occasionally when it is rife in the area but I'm scared of injecting against paratyphoid because I've heard some horror stories. An inflamed third eyelid is quite common nowadays, particularly in young birds, so I use a Brux-type product or black eye drops from Fabry. I have only used Baytril two or three times in all the years I've kept pigeons because I'm reluctant to use anything that strong.
I no longer use glucose - its effects are too short-lived. The thinking used to be sugars; nowadays it's fats. And as I said earlier I now put the vitamins on the corn and not in the water, and I use sunflower not peanuts. I haven't used beans for racing since the 1970s - pigeons just do not need the protein. I don't use brewer's yeast much nowadays because of potential fungal infections. Instead I use garlic oil. I also add garlic cloves to the drinkers all through winter and only change the water every four or five days.
A CLASSIC PREPARATION
I pair up on December 12th and they rear two youngsters, the hen being removed at 14-16 days. In March they are re-paired, rear two youngsters again and the hen is once more removed at 14-16 days. This takes us up to the start of the season. They miss the first couple of races if the weather is cold but then go every week, returning to their bowl (the yearlings see their hens). Those earmarked for Bergerac with the Midlands National in late July can expect to have up to five Channel races beforehand, the last one (probably Nantes or Tours) being three weeks before Bergerac. Basketing for Bergerac is on a Wednesday so on the Tuesday night I throw the hens out with them at exercise. I then open the windows and once they've gone in I take the hens away again and let the cocks back out. They search the skies for their hens! Then I feed them in, making sure they have eaten everything up before reintroducing their hens loose into the loft. I give them bowls and straw and some will already be building when I come to basket them next morning. I may do this twice in a season but not more often. It doesn't make them overexcited because the temperament of a long-distance pigeon is different from shorter distance birds. You could let off dynamite next to some of them and they wouldn't flinch! Their main aim in life is to reproduce and so once you've given them their hen and they think they are finally going to be allowed to get on with breeding, they seem to leave in the right frame of mind. When they come home they are allowed to rear a pair of late-breds.
I've tried pairing them up and sending them sitting to big races but I've had some bad races doing it. I won 1st and 2nd MNFC Nantes with nest brothers sitting up to seven days and, thinking they would be even keener sent sitting another week, sent them back and came unstuck. It may be hormonal; it may be they put on too much weight. Hens, however, are different. If they have been on widowhood all year the ideal way is to re-pair them and send them on their first youngster of the year, anything up to five days old, though usually just chipped.
December Versus February Pairing
I pair in December because I like to have early youngsters and my records show that my earliest-bred youngsters are often my best - the parents were at their peak and untaxed. By pairing in December and re-pairing in March I have had two fantastic seasons. Wal Soontjens recommended it and I have found they are just one flight further on by the end of the campaign. For one thing, I think December pairing tends to bond them to their box better and I don't think the cocks put on any internal fat at all, so they are practically in racing condition once the second nest has been weaned. The old way was to let them sit their second round to seven or eight days then widow them but the first nest can be erratic. This way, when I re-pair them they are all down in seven to nine days. I shall stick with this system.
Fitness and condition are easy to get but super form is harder to attain; it comes from super health and the X factor. Do I find it hard to sleep when a big race is coming up and I know I have super form? No, I only find it hard to sleep when I've sent my entry form off with lots of Xs on it and I can't see any super form coming!
If I didn't use any of the products I've mentioned between now and next season I wouldn't say that super form wouldn't come anyway, but I couldn't say I would be confident of attaining it.
I swear by herbal smoke bombs for getting rid of parasites - both in the loft and on the pigeons - and for clearing their eyes and heads of viruses and for clearing the upper breathing passages. A word of caution: don't use the ones for greenhouses. I use Koudjys bombs which I buy at the shows and I place one in the middle of each loft, keeping the pigeons in the loft. You get a few sneezes but a day or two later their wattles are snow white. I think an unclear head is the biggest barrier to success.
I look for the curtain in the throat to be as straight as a pencil line. It may be shaped like a V if the bird has had a hard race but it will return to a pencil line in a quality pigeon. If a bird always has a V-shaped curtain it won't be any good; I like the eye cere to be complete the whole way round for protection against the wind but I don't like to see much wattle; white spots in the throat either run in strains or signify a calcium deficiency and are not something I worry about; eyesign is a complete farce; I used to think the wing shape mattered but I've since come across short-winged champions at the long distance; the vents should be nice and tight. A slack vent is comparable to a pot belly and I've never seen a pot-bellied athlete! You can improve feather quality but only slightly. Good pigeons are born with good feather.
Could I go into someone's loft and pick out their best racer or breeder at a glance? No, I'd have to handle them and go by the way they felt, based on my experience. A pigeon will tell you if it's a good pigeon. I like a light-boned framework which gives the impression of buoyancy.
THE BEST OF THE BEST
I've been fortunate to have owned many good pigeons and if you gave me the choice of having any of my past pigeons in my current loft I would choose the following: 05014 (1st National Angoulême) x the Symonds Hen (van der Wegen) - they bred 1st and 2nd National; The Pest's sire and dam, moreso the sire as he bred good pigeons with other hens; The 17 (Alfons Bauwen's Gold Wing lines) x the Unique Hen (Desmet Matthys), so named because she was a daughter of a National winner, sister to a National winner and dam of a National winner, Tony's Boy. The 17 was smashed up so badly as a youngster I nearly killed him but he wasn't suffering so I let him be and he went on to breed 1st and 2nd National. He was a big, long-cast pigeon with a tail that was too long for his body and pale eyes and if I'd been ruthless in my selection I would have culled him! The Pest, on the other hand, was always beautiful. He never won a prize as a youngster, nor as a yearling until he got to Angoulême with the MNFC where he was 9th Open. Then, as a 2y, he won from everywhere, going on to be 1st BBC Nantes and 1st MNFC Angoulême. Touch wood, I think I now have a pigeon which may be even better than The Pest. I call him Snake and he's a grizzle cock. His targets in 2005 will be anything and everything up to Saintes and if he comes through next season, I'll put him to one side
Fancier or PIGEON?
All things being equal, at the distance it's the origin that matters most. The further you go, the more it's down to the pigeon. It's still a partnership to some degree but if not bred for 600 miles you can be as clever as you like but you'll not get them to come home. I'm pretty convinced the Maevart pigeons will help me step up 100 miles so I can compete strongly at 600 miles. I'm now starting to lean towards the likes of San Sebstian, Bordeaux and Pau because there are so many races nowadays like these on offer. Dax and Pau are the two Internationals I'd like to have a go at. Palamos is perhaps that little bit too far - though I'd like to get one. I shan't neglect the shorter Classic races because they are the bread and butter and help pay for the other races, so I'll always keep the pigeons for those races, too. Basically I just love Classic racing.