Pigeons win prizes: How Britain's most derided bird can generate big bucks

Pigeon racers and trainers explain to Yahoo! News the appeal behind the event which pulls in 25,000 fans every year.

It's a hobby favoured by Mike Tyson, with a huge legion of worldwide fans and prizes worth millions of dollars.

Yes, the stakes are sky high in the world of pigeon racing. Take the Sun City Million Dollar Race in South Africa – it has a huge prize pot of $1.3m, with the overall winner bagging a cool $200,000.

But on these shores, the world of pigeon fancying doesn't quite have the same prestige it's afforded overseas.

The humble pigeon is not exactly Britain's best-loved bird - some even unkindly refer to city-dwelling pigeons as 'flying rats'.

The story will be very different in Blackpool this weekend though, where 25,000 will descend on the seaside town for the highlight of the pigeon fancying calendar.

The British Homing World Show - dubbed 'the Crufts of the pigeon world' - will exhibit the best-groomed birds and all things pigeon-related over two days.

Competitors spend months and years raising their pedigree pigeons to either show off or race against each other.

It might sound like a niche pastime, but an older generation might remember a time when pigeon racing was one of the most popular pursuits among the working classes in the mid-1970s.

Celebrities and sportsmen alike all enjoyed an interest in pigeons back then, but it has since been left behind in the popularity stakes by horse and greyhound racing.

The history of the pigeon is even entwined with that of Britain itself - in wartime they were essential communication tools in relaying messages back from behind enemy lines.

The homing pigeon was also the most decorated animal of the Second World War.

The number of UK pigeon fanciers may have dwindled in recent years, but members from some 2,200 UK pigeon fancying clubs will converge on the Lancashire coast this weekend, according to Stewart Wardrop, general manager of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association.

He told Yahoo! News: "The peak of pigeon racing was in the mid-1970s when it was one of the most popular working class sports, and many footballers at the time were pigeon racers.

"Nowadays the likes of Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney concentrate on horse racing.

"There hasn't been enough publicity for the sport in recent years, and it sat back on its laurels during the 1970s when it was popular.

"That was the time when pigeon racing should've been publicising itself."

With a top prize in the UK of £25,000 (for the RPRA One Loft Race in August), some would argue pigeon racing should be as popular as its greyhound or horse equivalents.

Mr Wardrop concedes that the public perception of pigeons may not help.

But he added: "The kind of pigeons you see in towns and cities are feral and wild - ours are pedigree birds.

"Most pigeons fanciers will be able to track the lineage of a bird back through its family and all of them will be vaccinated.

"Urban pigeons and ones bred for shows and races are chalk and cheese.

"In competitions, pigeons are fed the best food and treated in the best way - they are raised like athletes.

"When people like Ken Livingstone refer to them as 'flying rats', negative publicity like that is never good, but those in the trade know there is a very clear difference."

Mr Wardrop said that pigeon racing and pigeon fancying is the kind of pastime which should be encouraged in youngsters.

He might be right - an initiative launched last year, the Flying High Project, aims to divert wayward teens from troublesome behaviour by teaching them about pigeon care.

Mr Wardrop added: "It's a great sport that isn't expensive, and anyone can quite easily breed a champion.

"Unlike in horse racing, where you needs hundreds of thousands of pounds to produce a winner, you can do it on the cheap with pigeons.

"It also helps to develop navigational skills in youngsters, as well as discipline in raising and breeding the birds.

"Then there's the excitement of setting them off on a race and not knowing what position they'll be in when they return.

"The best breeders and pigeon fanciers have tenacity, thoroughness and attention to detail.

"It's like any other sport - the more practice you put into it the better your results are."

As for the pigeons themselves, Mr Wardrop insists that those competing for the title of 'Supreme Champion' will have 'every millimetre scrutinised' before judges decide on the best bird.

"When looking for the best pigeons, it's almost the same as when looking at the best dogs at Crufts", he said.

"Judges look at the condition, the muscle fibres, the eyes and beak - every single millimetre of the bird is scrutinised, even the way it feels in your hand."

The 2013 British Homing Show of the Year takes place at the Blackpool Winter Gardens this weekend.