Theo McInnes draws on the beauty and surprise behind pigeon fancying

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Following three hobbyists and their prize pigeons, McInnes sheds light on the passion behind a once-thriving sport, now in its twilight years

It is 6am. Four lorries line up, cast in the warm glow of the morning sun. A whistle blows and, all at once, 10,000 pigeons are released into the sky. They flap and flutter, launching themselves in every direction, eventually forming flocks. Within 15 seconds they are out of sight, racing to their homes, hundreds of kilometres away. 

“It’s a real spectacle,” says Theo McInnes, describing what pigeon enthusiasts call a ‘liberation’. Once released, the birds are tracked and timed across distances that vary from 100 to 1,000 kilometres. “They are remarkable animals,” says McInnes. “You can take a pigeon to the north of Scotland, where it’s never been before. Release it, and it will, without fail, fly back to its home.”

© Theo McInnes.
© Theo McInnes.

Pigeon fancying refers to the art of breeding and racing pigeons. Humans have practised pigeon fancying in some form for around 10,000 years in almost every part of the world. McInnes began his project, The Fanciers, in summer 2020, after a BBC news headline piqued his interest: “Coronavirus: Pigeon racing first sport to return after lockdown.” After some research, he found that alongside the official pigeon racing organisations, a community of hobbyists existed. “It’s a whole different side of the sport,” he says. “This side is in its twilight years. It’s very much made up of old men. You don’t meet many young people anymore.”

In 1989, there were around 60,000 members of The Royal Pigeon Racing Association. This has steadyily declined since. Still, there are dedicated clubs and schools all over the country And, at first, McInnes was unsure of which story to explore, whether it be cross-county rivalries, or focusing on the sports’ slow decline. Eventually, he met a group of three enthusiasts – Mike, Micky, and Gerry – and from there, the story evolved.

© Theo McInnes.
© Theo McInnes.

McInnes spent the next few months documenting the men and their pigeons, photographing the carefully crafted lofts where the birds reside, and all the memorabilia that decorates their homes. Capturing them with a sense of awe, but also care and serenity, McInnes’ images counter the negative connotations that many city-dwellers would associate with the species. “For the people who are involved with this, pigeons are not just birds they keep in their garden. They have a real relationship with them, a real bond.”

When Mike’s prize pigeon, Hans Jubilee, died, for example, he buried him at the end of his garden. And, in Mike’s living room, a painting of a pigeon being released into the sky, hangs more prominently than any photograph of his family. For Gerry Francis, a former footballer and manager of QPR, in some ways, the pigeons came first. “Football was his life, but pigeons are his passion,” says McInnes. “That says a lot about how central pigeons are to these men’s lives.”

After experiencing a heyday of sorts in the 70s and 80s, pigeon fancying is slowly dying out, mostly because young people are not taking it up. “It is a bit of a sad story, because the sport is dying out,” reflects McInnes, who is currently working on a film, co-produced by Harry Zundel, to accompany the work. “But it is also a positive story, in such a miserable time.”

© Theo McInnes.
Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.