Is the race nearly run for homing pigeons? One man's mission to save a dying breed in the Capital
Meet Freddy Robertson, the 'Birdman of Magdalene Gardens', a pigeon fancier extraordinaire, who fears for the future of the sport he loves
Freddy Robertson, at 42, is an effervescent Edinburgh character pursuing his passion for pigeon racing. He is the kind of enthusiast who fills you with warmth when he eloquently describes the magic of watching his tired homing pigeons appear on the distant horizon after a flight of up to 550 miles in a day, begin their descent, gliding at a mile a minute, and then swoop over Edinburgh’s Magdalene Glen and the safety of their home roosts.
Freddy, with his wi-fi earpiece in place, is on a Facetime call to another pigeon fancier inside his garage. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of homing pigeon paraphernalia, the seed mixes from Germany, Belgian and County Durham and various medicines and tonics, such as garlic oil, to keep birds in good health. There is plenty of colourful language and friendly banter as they discuss whose birds did well in the most recent race. Freddy sorts out an order for seed and totes up the cost while another mate loads up the bags ready to dispatch across the city.
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“I buy a lot of seed and various pigeon requirements in bulk so I can then sell it at a decent price to some of my friends across Edinburgh and the Lothians. I’m doing this to keep the sport alive. It’s always been a very social sport where people get together and chat about the birds. The buying and selling just evolved because of my love and passion for this sport,” he tells the Inquirer.
Freddy’s friendly nature turns quickly darker when he starts to talk about the demise of his sporting pastime, once an ingrained aspect of Edinburgh’s working-class life alongside greyhound racing, amateur football, dinner dances and bingo at the local miners’ welfare.
“In Scotland, pigeon racing is dying. The young generation are not coming in. But there are a number of other factors which make it harder and harder to keep and to race pigeons,” he says.
A SPORT OF KINGS: EMBRACED BY WORKING CLASS
Pigeon racing in Britain took off [no pun intended] as a ‘Sport of Kings’ when King Leopold II of Belgium presented racing pigeons to Queen Victoria’s family as a gift in 1886. This was for a loft in Sandringham palace where King Edward VII and King George V were all avid pigeon fanciers, winning the national race from Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. During both the First and Second World wars, homing pigeons were a vital part of the national defence, with one pigeon, Royal Blue, winning the Dickin Medal for Gallantry for locating a lost aircraft in 1940. After the war, Queen Elizabeth was a patron of pigeon societies. In Scotland, pigeon racing took hold in the mining areas of the Lothians, Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, on the fringes of Glasgow, where large pigeon lofts became avian sentinels amid the urban landscape.
A PIGEON LOFT IN EDINBURGH
Freddy and his family live in an end-of-terrace house on the Magdalene estate, a solid 1960s council scheme, now a mixture of council houses and owner-occupied homes, backing onto Magdalene Glen, a vital slither of Edinburgh’s local green spaces between the Jewel and Milton Road. The Niddrie Burn flows through the glen, behind Brunstane, on its way to Eastfield, spilling out into the Firth of Forth. At the bottom of his neat garden area, converted to artificial grass, there is a large wooden hut bought from a guy in Larkhall, where Freddy breeds, nurtures and then races scores of pigeons. It was originally equipped with heater and extraction fans and control panels. There are several caged rooms, where each bird has warm space while a conveyor belt feeds them a range of corns and grains. One area is set aside for young birds still growing, next door are those being prepared for the race season. The cocks and hens are kept apart and given only a small amount of time to mingle, and each bird is examined monthly for any disease. It is a cosseted existence.
“I’ve been fairly successful up to now. I’ve won three national competitions: I won the Young Birth National Scotland, when I was first, second and fifth; I won the first Inland Race in 2022, which was 3,000 pigeons across the whole of Scotland; and the Young Inland Race from Billericay in 2019.”
AN ANCIENT SPORT UNDER THREAT
According to the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, there are around 60,000 pigeon fanciers in the UK, a few thousand of these in Scotland. The cost of living crisis has provoked multiple discussions about the basics of human life. The shocking expansion of food banks and the cost of heating homes are problems we should all agree we need to resolve. But rising costs have also impacted on activities which have brought pleasure and a sense of community to working people, and some would argue that pigeon racing is in this category.
“I’ve had pigeons since I was a small boy. My Dad used to keep them. He kept the Horseman, which is a Pouter, a variety of pigeon that puffs out its crop and stretches its oesophagus, which gives the bird its distinctive ‘coo-ing’ sound,” he explains.
Freddy’s Dad, also Freddy was “fae Craigmillar”, and he too had started as a small boy. He passed away a few years ago. “We used to send our Pouters out in the windae, from windae boxes.”
Pouters were kept in individual huts which competed against each other. It was a simple contest of a male against a female pigeon and the winner was the one whose pigeon could be coaxed into the other’s hut.
“This is what I started. And you get to keep the pigeons, if you could keep it in. Sadly, it is a sport that is dying out in Scotland. A lot of this is down to new houses where there are rules about opening windows. A lot of the new housing associations say: no pigeons, no pigeon huts or lofts,” he laments.
He also says that the council changing windows from sash and case, which would easily slide up and down allowing the boxes to be put out on the window ledges, and kept secure, has meant there is no room with modern PVC windows.
“All the older guys are getting too old to do it and many are passing away, and there are no younger people coming into the sport,” he says.
Freddy reckons there were only two youths in the Scottish national pigeon racing championship, yet the sport is still thriving in Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, northern France and Germany.
“There’s nae young folk getting involved in Scotland, and the older guys are dying out. The price of foodstuff for the pigeons is getting too dear. They just can’t afford it. For something that been part of our Scottish heritage for a very long time – and pigeon racing goes back to the Middle Ages – it’s sad to see. A lot have given up the sport.”
With this becoming harder, Freddy Robertson decided he needed to up the tempo.
A SWITCH TO RACING BIRDS
“In 2017, I took up the racing pigeons. When I was younger the racing pigeons didn’t really entertain me. It was mainly in the mining communities in Midlothian where there were a lot of lofts and where it is well-organised. Danderhall, Gorebridge and Newtongrange were all communities where pigeon racing was an ingrained part of a working person’s life.”
Freddy’s Dad knew guys in the Midlothian racing pigeon community and took Freddy out to get him started. As voracious Edinburgh eats up land for more housing, all the pockets of waste ground where communal sheds were once built have gradually disappeared. An allotment space beside the police station at Craigmillar had a compound with 12-14 huts. This was where pigeon racing started but had to move when the police station was built. A recent compound is behind the old Castlebrae High School.
“This is the only compound in this part of Edinburgh left for racing pigeons. Everything else is contained in people’s own back gardens, like me here.”
The main costs for keeping pigeons is the daily corn and barley feed, the medications, including injections, and the racing fees, for local club, and for national federation. There are two federations in Edinburgh: the Midlothian Racing Pigeon Federation, which has around 20 members; and the Pentland Hills Pigeon Federation, which has around 100 members, covering Sighthill, Granton, Portobello and Musselburgh, up to Wallyford, Pathhead, Gorebridge and Penicuik. The largest federation in Scotland is in Lanarkshire.
Each bird has a white identification ring around its foot with its unique number and, if a race timing system is used, there is an electronic tagging system (ETS) to buy for major races. The Scottish Homing Union, based in Wishaw, is the governing body in Scotland which runs the races and verifies the winners, based on calculations of time and distance. It’s a ‘gentlemen’s’ sport and the timing of returning pigeon is down to owners contacting the union as soon as their birds return.
In a special section of the Freddy’s hut is the ‘retirement home for older pigeons’, a tribute to those survivors. He gathers this special bird in his hand. Its ringed-code numbers is GB17 P1972, retired after completing six and a half years of racing, returning every time to its Edinburgh loft. This pigeon, bought from Derek Nicolls of Premier Stud, in Hull, is one of only two birds left from the 2017 cohort of 60 racing birds. The ‘GB’ is the year of its origin, while the ‘P’ stands for the Pentland Hills Federation.
THE BATTLE AGAINST THE PEREGRINES
Across the UK, pigeon racing is being devastated by another threat – one that is part of the animal ecosystem. The re-introduction of the magnificent peregrine falcon back into the wild is, say pigeon fanciers, massacring the racing pigeon.
“The peregrines are not just decimating the pigeons, if you are out in the natural environment, you’ll see a decline in the wild smaller songbirds too. They are getting annihilated. Everything is here for a reason. If it’s natural, it’s fine, but it’s getting out of hand. But it’s not natural to re-introduce so many reared peregrine falcons and let them lose on the wild. It is upsetting the balance,” argues Freddy.
In many cases the peregrine has been re-introduced into town centres to deal with the wild pigeons, who are feeding on the debris of pizzas and kebabs left by humans on the streets.
“The wild pigeons are too clever, they can escape from the peregrines. Instead, the peregrines are picking off the elite racing pigeons. I was training my birds at St Boswells a couple of years ago, and three mornings in a row we let the pigeons go out for training. Within five minutes, the peregrines were on them, it was a massacre. The peregrines seem to know where they need to be… it’s like dinner time.”
He says talk of the comeback of the Eagle Owl to keep the peregrines at bay, has prompted farmers and game-keepers to says they would shoot and kill the Eagle Owl because of the damage it causes to farm stock. Freddy accepts that this is all part and parcel of natural life, but the increase in peregrines is ‘playing with nature’.
Sparrowhawks are another natural predator taking pigeons on the wing. Racing pigeons, flying at just over 60 miles per hour, can normally out-run many other kinds of birds of prey.
“The only thing they won’t get away from is a peregrine, because it can go higher and it is one of the fastest birds on a swoop. They are diving at around 100mph to take their prey. That’s nature. However, for me, there is an over-population with the peregrines, now there are thousands of them.”
He is now seeing the peregrine on the outskirts of Edinburgh, when they were not very visible in previous years. “They are nice to see, like red kites are good to see, but the red kites are not over-populated. Even the buzzards are more prevalent, but they don’t harm the pigeons. They are too big and slow.”
THE EXCITEMENT OF THE PIGEON RACE
Race days are the best parts of the year. The season, April to September, has recently finished after an extension caused by the weather. Freddy and his partner Willie Robertson, flying under the tag of F&W Robertson, have selected all of the birds in the days before the race. They have checked their weight, their state of health, and all are entered under strict regulations at the club, which is Danderhall Pigeon Racing Club. All the birds are collected at the club and then taken to the start in a specially-designed racing transporter which can hold thousands of pigeons. The birds are fed and watered in the night before the race. Often the birds are taken down over-night and the release will depend on weather conditions and the flight path, because there are restricted flying zones around Britain’s numerous regional and small airports and, if there has been an outbreak of avian flu, there is a 10km exclusion zone around infected premises, such as chicken farms, until the outbreak is contained.
Then it’s off. All the birds are released – or liberated – at the same time, and the time is relayed to all pigeon fanciers waiting for the return of their pigeons. The birds then end up in batches, like a cycling peloton, with slower batches coming behind. The more motivated pigeons start to break away from the pack. In England, the increasing use of tiny sensors has allowed pigeon fanciers to track the routes, but in Scotland this technology is still not being used. A new Chinese created system, being trialled in Scotland, is able to track the birds in real-time giving geographic location and velocity. Freddy uses his own maths and knowledge to calculates how long a race should be. And, in the hours that they are due to appear on the horizon, Freddy and Willie wait in the back garden, usually with a few pigeon-racing friends, including David Brown and Freddy’s cousin, and gaze southwards towards Soutra Hill looking for the first signs. The direction depends on where the pigeons were liberated.
“It’s exciting. You ken roughly with the wind and direction how long it should take them. We often have a wee bet on them as well. It’s small things to keep you engaged and have a goal. If you don’t have a goal, then you won’t have the heart for it.”
Freddy wants to win every time his pigeons are racing. “That’s what gets me out of my bed at 6am in the morning, and sort out all the feeding, the cleaning and the examination of the birds. Then again, it’s repeated again at 3pm, to get them fit and in the best condition for Friday when they head to the race on Saturday.”
In the afternoon, they look south, checking the wind direction, scouring the sky for tiny dots on the horizon.
“Then we start shouting like maniacs, trying to get their attention to bring them down. I can work out the angle, coming up the coast, and if they come in from a certain point, I know I have a good chance of winning. I’m one of the longest fliers in the federation, along with the guys in Granton and the Gilmerton guys. If they come up the east coast, I’ve a good chance of winning.”
With the cost of racing £7 per pigeon coming from across the English Channel, or £5 to race them inland, any losses soon mount up.
“It’s expensive because of the membership, and the number of pigeons that are getting lost. There’s not as many people taking part. The decline in the sport is causing everything else to go up in price because of the increase in fuel and all that kind of stuff.”
A SPORT ATTRACTING CRITICISM
Freddy Robertson accepts there are those who object to his sport. Scottish Natural Heritage has examined pigeon racing and found that thousands of birds are lost during training flights and races. This amounts to an average of 40 birds per loft per year. Freddy accepts there are losses.
The blue riband contest is the Gold Cup in July where pigeons fly up to 550 miles in a day, which amounts to 17 hours on the wing. The pigeons are released from Rheims in France, cross the Channel, and return to Edinburgh. Again, Brexit restrictions and the movement of livestock have dramatically increased the cost to taking part. 50 pigeons are £350 alone for entrance fees, before the cost of transport. [Dover docks does not have an EU licence to ship livestock, so now they have to go from Portsmouth.]
One animal welfare charity, Helpwildlife.co.uk, says it is concerned about the welfare of all pigeons. “Our view is that releasing a tame dependent bird into the wild to face predators, shooters, power lines, cars, poor weather and just plain exhaustion in the full knowledge that the odds are against the bird returning home safely is cruel.”
It is the same kind of debate which erupts during the Grand National when thoroughbred horses are put down after falling at some of the jumps.
“You are up against big organisations who simply want to put a stop to the sport. We’ve just got to deal with it and get on with it. I make sure that I breed enough pigeons to survive each year. It is costly but it’s the only way. If I bred 50 this year, I might only have ten. Ten doesn’t make up for all the pigeons I’ve lost,” he says.
A SOLUTION FOR SCOTLAND?
The massive decline in pigeon racing is deeply concerning for those who love it. Some might argue it is an activity that is ‘of its time’ and that it no longer has a purpose, if so many birds die in the process.
Freddy is vehement in its defence.
“The birds aren’t cosy little pets with names. We breed them to become racing pigeons, which is part of their natural instinct. When our birds are moulting and chucking their feather, they are bathed twice a week and given clean water and food. They are well looked after so they can race.”
“Yes, there will be pockets of people who don’t care about the birds, as in any walk of life. But for me and the people I deal with, we are all concerned about the animal’s welfare as it grows and develops. We really try to do our best. We don’t expend birds for the sake of it. And we want every one to return to their home.”
He believes working with these gently-coo-ing beasts, who have such remarkable homing instincts, is a life-affirming experience. Live pigeons that don’t make it back and are found can be reported and are meant to be collected by federation members and returned to their lofts.
“My motto is I believe they are athletes, they are not pets. They are there to do a job, which is to race. They are not there to be cute little birds in a box: they are here to race.”
“In parts of England, there are pigeon lofts in the school grounds now. It is about educating the children, and they are actually competing and sending them to race. It would be good to see that in Scotland. Whether it would be a primary school or a high school, I don’t know, but it’s all about appreciating nature – and these wonderful, wonderful birds.”
Freddy doesn’t know what the future will hold for pigeon racing in Edinburgh. His wife, two daughters and his son have no interest, as yet, in keeping on the tradition. His youngest, aged eight, is a helper with the pigeon.
“It is something you have to be brought into. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea. There are not a lot of women in the pigeon game. There are some but not a lot.”
COVID-19 was an issue for the sport with massive restrictions, which had an impact on the social aspects of the sport, including the national gathering in Lanark. This year the Scottish Homing Union Show returns to Lawrie & Symington, Lanark, on 11 November. Its future in Scotland will be a hot topic among those in attendance.
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