John Halstead is one of the fore most pigeon fanciers in the UK. His DVDs are recommended by pigeonmad.com and John has kindly agreed to write an article for our site.
In the last 2 racing seasons John Halstead of Kington Magna near Gillingham in Dorset has won two major long distance nationals and has finished second in another.
The National wins were at distances of 429 and 696 miles and this is now the pinnacle of a lifetime in pigeons with plenty of major successes over the years leading up to these most recent achievements.
In deed John started in pigeons at the age of 8 in Todmorden a town on the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire and in the last Young Bird race of 1967 won 1st Club 2nd South East Lancs Federation to register his first win. 42 years and several changes of location later and we now find a range of lofts in the garden of his home 30 miles from the South coast of England.
The lofts are set out in two distinct areas, one comprising of the stock loft and the other the racing lofts, all are wooden structures. The stock loft was erected in September 2008 and measures 32’ x 6’ and has a tiled roof. A 6’ wide aviary runs all the way from one end to the other. There are 3 compartments for stock birds with different style nest boxes in each allowing for a maximum of 27 pairs. There is a small food and basket store at one end and the remaining 10’ section has 3 lines of perching poles specially designated for the widowhood hens. The previous stock loft which was designed by John and erected in 2002 when the Halsteads moved South from the Midlands has now been relocated to the racing area. It currently houses 12 yearling widowhood cocks in one 8’ x 6’ compartment and the other half is decked out with nest boxes which have temporary cardboard dividers so that the nest boxes can act as box perches and house a maximum 24 young cocks from the 2010 young bird team. This loft will be darkened as soon as the new youngsters are weaned into the loft. This East facing loft has terrific ventilation with 2 louvres low down in the front and back plus one in the side of each compartment. Petron’s special ‘walk through’ ETS traps which sit in their own bay windows are used for trapping the birds.
The main racing loft faces South and measures 27’ x 6’ and has a tiled roof. It contains 4 compartments – one containing feed bins and baskets. The largest section 10’6’ x 6’ holds 12 widowhood nest boxes whilst the other 2 compartments are almost identical and contain 24 pipo boxes in each and are separated by a solid sliding door. These were designed to house the young birds and have shutters and curtains so that the youngsters can be darkened as soon as they are weaned. Two other pent roof lofts, one measuring 9’ x 6’ and one 16’ x 6’, house the other teams of race birds.
RACE TEAMS & PAIRING DATES
For the 2010 racing season John has a total of 42 racers; split down to 3 teams of 12 widowhood cocks and 6 racing hens. Next season the hens with the best racing potential are to be mated with some late bred cocks which are there solely to motivate the hens – they have no other job, this way the hens can be targeted towards certain races and unlike when the cocks have to race – the hens should be able to race on their best nest condition. These birds will not be mated until the end of March.
It is intended to mate up some stock birds around the 1st January, and some of the earliest bred youngsters will be entered in various ‘One loft’ races. John firmly believes that to gain success in these the youngsters have to join the respective lofts early to have the best chance. In the last 2 seasons alone John has won £3250 in these events, so these tactics may well be right. The race birds are paired during the period 7th to 14th February and most rear one youngster. Some eggs from the stock birds are moved under the racers to rear. Once on the second round of eggs they are allowed to sit for a maximum of 9 days and then they are on widowhood. The young bird team is usually complete by the date of the first old bird race ( mid to end April) and will number between 60 and 70 youngsters. This figure will be reduced as the weeks go by as John is very ruthless with any showing signs of weakness.
The stock loft contains a mix of older retired racers and the youth of latebreds from his National winners, but all are expected to produce top performing offspring within 2 – 3 seasons. To gain a place in the stock loft the pigeon has to be a superb handling bird – just about capable of winning in a ‘show handling class’ and must contain the winning genes. John told me he is continually looking for better birds to improve his loft. The size of birds are quite important to him, his preference is for a medium sized pigeon, never a big one. He handles his birds regularly and matches up the birds he thinks compliment each other, taking eyes, balance and feathering into account. Line breeding and cross breeding are favoured. Half brother x half sister is a much favoured pairing in the loft. Several different families are kept but John said that he kept long distance to long distance and sprinters to sprinters. At the moment the families kept are the Jim Biss and Norman Southwell bloodlines, Gaby Vandenabeele’s mainly through M&D Evans, the Untouchable (1st Barcelona), Janssen Van Den Bosche/Meuleman x Grondelaar bloodlines, Ko Nipius through A E Shepherd of Chichester and Kees Bosua/Reynaert’s for the shorter sprint races.
EXERCISE & TRAINING
Daily exercise for the Widowhood cocks consists of anything between 25 and 60 minutes around the loft morning and evening. John said that during April and early May they are pestered by sparrowhawks so, in 2009 the Widowhood cocks only had three training tosses up to 20 miles before the first race. He intends to do the same for the 2010 season. All of the cocks are sent to training races of around 80 miles on Saturdays. He works on the principle that there are plenty of birds in the sky on Saturdays, therefore less chance of a hawk attack. Widowhood cocks are not sent across the Channel until such time as they are coming well from the Saturday training races.
When it comes to feeding, the race birds are fed Versele Laga Depurative , Gerry Plus and Super Widowhood. They receive Depurative or 50/50 after races, gradually building up to a stronger mix as the next race approaches. Young birds are given a high protein mixture, usually Versele Laga Liege or mixed peas and Depurative. When racing they are given Gerry Plus and a Widowhood mixture. Winter feeding consists of a general mixture with increasing amounts of Depurative added as the moult progresses. Breeders are given Countrywide Ponderosa Special Breeder with added maple peas. The birds are all fed communally in wooden troughs on the loft floor.
SUPPLEMENTS & TONICS
On the subject of supplements, John said that he did use some, among them Hormoform and Golden Boost and most important are red skin peanuts. Certain water additives such as Prolyte on return from races, multivitamins, electrolytes, Gem Impact, Procol 12 and Gemthepax are used. All birds are given an annual worming treatment with Moxidectin and of course all are vaccinated against paramyxovirus. The birds are dosed on a regular basis for the treatment of canker, three products are used, Turbosole, Rhonfried Ridzol and Harkers Chevicol.
Weekly racing is with the Gillingham & District PRC which is affiliated to the Dorset Federation, which John topped 2 weeks running in 2008. Birds that he considers his best are sent to Nationals, yearlings and unproven birds are sent in the Club/Federation to gain experience. John told me that almost all of the club members use the club racing as a ‘stepping stone’ for the Nationals and Classics. It takes less than one hour to drive to the marking stations for the National Flying Club, British Barcelona Club, Central Southern Classic Flying Club and the British International Championship Club, so there are plenty of options.
It doesn’t matter whether the race is long or short John always aims to be competitive. Unlike many he prefers to send to 3 different races with 3 super fit pigeons than try to take 1st 2nd & 3rd in the same race. His birds are always aimed at particular races and John has progressed now to the highest level of competition and so the prime targets are the National and International races. In the last 2 years from the Barcelona International races John has been 2nd and 1st into England and in 2009 finished 2 hours in front of the next British pigeon, taking 264th International from 27,669 birds. The goal posts have been moved and John has now set his sights on 1st International with Tarbes and Barcelona the supreme targets.
The Grand National of pigeon racing
Great podcast interview with John Halstead
4th July, 2014, 27000 pigeons are released in Barcelona in the biggest event in the pigeon racing calendar. John Halstead from Nyland near Stalbridge in North Dorset knows what it's like to win; his bird Untouchable came home first in 2009.
Here he tells BBC Radio Solent's Steve Harris about how he got into pigeon fancying, and what it takes to breed a winner.