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Sport of kings, boxers and Geordies; THIS weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the British Homing World Show of the Year. As usual John Cook will make the annual trek from his North East home to the event. He spoke to MIKE KELLY about his love for a sport which includes royalty and boxers among its fans.

Byline: MIKE KELLY

WHAT have the Queen and former world heavyweight champ Mike Tyson got in common? IT'S a pub quiz-style question which, to be fair, won't catch out many North East people. The answer is of course they are pigeonfanciers whose number includes thousands of devotees from this region.

Tyson sought sanctuary from his tough neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York, with his feathered friends while the Royal connection goes back to the 19th Century when in 1886 King Leopold II of the Belgians gave racing pigeons to the Royal Family as a gift and they used to start a racing loft on the Sandringham Estate.

Both Edward VII and George V enjoyed success with their racing pigeons, including first prizes in the national race from Lerwick in the Shetland Isles. Pigeons from the Royal loft were used as carrier pigeons during the First and Second World Wars with one bird winning the Dicken Medal for Gallantry for its role in reporting a lost aircraft in 1940.

After the war, pigeons returned to racing, notching up more wins in national and international races. Today, The Queen maintains an interest in the Royal pigeon lofts and visits when in Sandringham. And HRH is also patron of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association.

The association's British Homing World Show of the Year which starts today in Blackpool has been dubbed the Crufts of the pigeon world and is expected to attract around 25,000 visitors. Fanciers can buy anything from a bag of pigeon corn to a pounds 25,000 mahogany loft at the 150 or so trade stands.

Thousands of pigeons change hands at sales and auctions where sums of up to pounds 100,000 can be paid for a pedigree racing pigeon or its offspring so any notion of this being an annual jolly of some quaint working class pursuit is completely wrong.

Among those going will be John Cook, 70, of West Denton, Newcastle.

He said: "It's changed quite a bit over the years. It used to be just blokes who went but not now. I'll be going this year with the wife and a group of about 12 friends."

He was there at the first show held at Doncaster race course in 1972 and has been to every one since. Its popularity grew so that by 1977 organisers had to find a larger venue and so the show moved to the Winter Gardens at Blackpool where it has remained.

"People come from all over the world to it," said John. "From Europe, America and even China. There's a massive amount of interest in China. The price of pigeons has rocketed."

For instance, last year one racing pigeon, called Blue Prince, was sold at auction to a Chinese buyer for just short of pounds 140,000 ... not to race but to breed.

"Because it's a champion they've got to pay the price," said John. "Over the last 10 to 15 years, people in China have come into money. They've got to spend it on something."

John won't say how much he pays for his, but said: "The best pigeons you get are gifts, given to you free or for which you pay a few coppers. Many aren't in it for the money. It's a sport they love."

John, a member of the Westerhope Homing Society, has been keeping pigeons since the age of nine and racing them since the mid-1960s when in his 20s. It was a hobby he developed himself, his dad being more into football.

"When I was young I kept all sorts of animals - rabbits, dogs, mice, rats even pigs which I used to keep on a smallholding in West Denton."

John has won countless awards for his pigeons which he keeps near his home. Interestingly, he says he's not sure how many birds he had, but added hastily: "If one went missing I'd know. You visualise them. You don't count them. Physically they are all different, some heads are bigger some have bigger wattle. It's just a sense you get. If you haven't kept livestock you won't know what I mean.

"While my grandchildren can tell the difference, most younger people are more interested in telephones and electrical gadgets. They don't know what they're missing."

CAPTION(S):

BIRDS OF A FEATHER Pigeon fancier John Cook from West Denton at his allotment, close to his home
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 21, 2012
Words:729
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