Pigeon races still fly high in Sheffield despite fears for its future

It was in the 1960s that pigeon racing first aroused his interest. Within a few years, he had his own loft.

He broke something using an old cabinet he found on a tip. Carving out an entrance for the birds, it was just large enough for about half a dozen birds at the house near Burgoyne Road, Walkley, where he grew up.

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Pat Helliwell a Grenoside fancier. Photo Scott Merrylees

Today, with decades of professional skill in his trade and extensive experience in breeding winning pigeons, he has a huge loft at his home near Grenoside, with space for his 100 pigeons.

Pat, 64, still enjoys his hobby – but fears he faces issues that could see him make history.

The last high-profile issue to hit the headlines recently was the fear that races that traditionally started in France could end because of Brexit. But he sees other issues raising its head in a hobby that has been a Sheffield staple for generations.

“I’ve been racing pigeons since I was little,” said Pat, now one of the most successful racers at the Wadsley Bridge Flying Club, which is part of the Stocksbridge and District Federation in the field of pigeon racing. .

Pat Helliwell a Grenoside fancier. Photo Scott Merrylees

“My first race was in 1970, but I had kept birds for a few years before that. I started keeping them when I was 10 years old.

“At that time, the kids were out all day and we had animals. We fished or raised ferrets or pigeons. Most kids my age had pigeons – it was pretty big.

“In my early teens I learned to understand better what it was about.”

His first race saw his birds fly from Kettering to Sheffield in 1970. His best finisher was ninth. At that time, he had to mark the time on a clock on a marker tied around the bird’s leg to indicate when he was home, much like “clocking in” at work.

Pat Helliwell a Grenoside fancier. Photo Scott Merrylees

But times have changed and birds now carry a barcode. When entering his dovecote, the code is retrieved by an electronic reader, like at the checkout of a supermarket, automatically notifying the race organizers.

It’s not the only science involved. Birds’ diets are developed using the same type of techniques that athletes use to prepare them for races.

But there isn’t a lot of money in the races, he said.

“What I love most is when my pigeons win races,” he said. “That and see my pigeons come home. Bringing them home is the first and foremost thing. My wife says they’re like my babies.

John Healey MP with Mick McGrevy, who keeps and races pigeons

He raises them as well as the races. Owners seek to find successful breeding pairs, in much the same way as owners of racehorses.

Among his most successful pigeons is a bird he calls Sea Biscuit. Sea Biscuit won a Merit Award from the Royal Pigeon Racing Association last year.

This was in recognition of Sea Biscuit’s exceptional success in what the racing community calls Channel Races – races that start in France and return to England via the Channel.

There were three in his area last year. His bird won two.

“It’s a big deal, everyone wants to win them,” he said. “If you get a first place, you do well. “

But next year there are fears that the races will not take place because of Brexit.

New animal health regulations due to go into effect on April 21 reportedly required pigeons to have a health certificate signed by a veterinarian and to be in the EU for 21 days prior to release. In May, the EU agreed to extend the transition period for regulations until October 2021, but member states can apply their own national rules and France continues to require an animal health certificate.

UK owners want the requirements to be removed completely.

“Owners appreciate the need for strict regulations for travel to the EU, but these birds pose a low risk and are not imported, but only transported and then released,” said Mr Healey.

Pat says there are homeowners in town who are very upset with this change. But that’s not the only issue runners are facing right now.

They are also concerned about the increase in the number of birds of prey in the wild affecting their animals.

“We have a big problem with the birds of prey killing our pigeons,” he said. “The number of hawks and peregrine falcons is a big problem. People are raising them. Many of these birds are making a comeback. For pigeons it’s a big problem, so much so that a lot of people have integrated it. I understand they are eliminating songbirds as well. During the war, birds of prey were slaughtered to protect carrier pigeons bringing messages from Europe.

He is also concerned about the number of youngsters taking pigeons.

Pat has a son and a daughter as well as pigeons. They ask him how his birds are doing, but neither has started the hobby themselves.

“My club has 25 members,” he said. The federation may have 100, there are more on the other side of Sheffield too.

“Our federation sends around 1,500 birds per week. When I was 20, it was around 3,000.

“I’m afraid it will go out.”

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