Page last updated at 00:25 GMT, Saturday, 24 January 2009

Pigeon girl's quest for fanciers

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

Stephanie Langley with one of her Holle Croppers
Stephanie Langley with one of her favourite Holle Croppers
Mucking out a pigeon loft may not be every girl's idea of fun, but it has been 17-year-old Stephanie Langley's life for 11 years.

The secretary of the UK's Young Fanciers Pigeon Club is one of the country's leading teenage enthusiasts, showing her 60 prize birds in Europe and the United States with her mother.

But getting other youngsters interested in a hobby forever associated with northern male pensioners in flat caps has not been easy despite running a website for five years.

"I think it's the influence of friends. Because pigeons are not 'normal' pets, people think they'd be laughed at a bit... but it's not like that at all," she said.

Showing pigeons is like showing a dog, not everyone likes a Chihuahua
David Bills
Royal Pigeons Racing Association

Last year she more than doubled the club's membership from seven to 16, but numbers have since dwindled back to just nine despite securing new sponsorship.

The A-Level student, from the Wirral, is now on a recruitment drive to safeguard the pastime for the next generation.

"If there are no young people, there's no-one to carry on the hobby, so it's very important to get involved," she said.

"I keep a breed called the Holle Cropper, they perform to you, so you get the interaction you would with any other pet... they keep me intrigued."

Her website Fancy Pigeons 4U also features a busy forum which has been running for 18 months.

Stephanie's champion Holle Cropper
Stephanie's champion Holle Cropper
Graham Giddings, secretary of the National Pigeon Association, said the fancy pigeon governing body had a static membership of 800 but just 25 junior members.

He said the popularity of computers, football and other hobbies may help explain the lack of youthful interest.

"Most of the people in pigeons are pretty ancient now but we are actually trying to encourage more youngsters to join... but you're banging your head against the wall a bit," he said.

On Saturday Miss Langley takes her quest to Blackpool, where up to 30,000 pigeon enthusiasts are expected to gather over the weekend for the British Homing Show of the Year.

She has made a club banner and reserved a table at the show where she will hand out leaflets to try to drum up interest.

The event has been organised by the Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA) for the racing fraternity, but up to 1,000 fancy birds can also be seen.

There are an estimated 50,000 UK pigeon enthusiasts
The Queen still keeps racing pigeon lofts at Sandringham
The National Pigeon Association caters for over 200 varieties of fancy and flying pigeons
The National Homing Union for pigeon fanciers held its first AGM in 1897
During World War II of the 53 Dickin medals - the animal version of the Victoria Cross - 31 were presented to pigeons

Pigeon fancying is a separate pastime where rare breeds are displayed at shows but do not fly.

RPRA general manager David Bills said: "It's a fragmented sport, the show birds, less people do that. More people race because it's more exciting.

"Showing pigeons is like showing a dog, not everyone likes a Chihuahua, but things go in and out of fashion."

Interest in pigeons has been steadily declining, not helped by the arrival of bird flu in Britain, and Mr Bills says the RPRA loses about 1,000 members a year and has around 32,000 people on its books.

Miss Langley's father Richard said his daughter has always loved the birds and enjoys competing against the adults.

He said: "She's reached an age where she no longer shows in the junior section... she's had the best Holle Cropper at every show she has attended this year."

For all her struggles, Miss Langley is quietly optimistic about the future and the preservation of her hobby for the next generation.

"Kids have got their video games and computers and that seems to be more of a priority than pigeons, but it will get better," she said.

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