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A pigeon loft at Angus College is enabling pupils to learn about avian care and experience the thrill of their bird coming home

A pigeon loft at Angus College is enabling pupils to learn about avian care and experience the thrill of their bird coming home

His passion for pigeons is inspiring a new dimension to education at Angus College.

As a boy, Kevin Murphy learnt about racing pigeons from his father and grandfather, and now he is encouraging a new generation to take up the sport. The 39-year-old director of learning and teaching technology at Angus College in Arbroath has won a Scottish Championship Silver Award in the Scottish National Flying Club with his racing pigeon, Rocket.

But pigeon fanciers are an ageing breed and the need to rejuvenate the sport is critical, with even celebrity enthusiast Jack Duckworth from Coronation Street departing to the great pigeon loft in the sky.

Mr Murphy and local pigeon fanciers in Angus are driving efforts to attract fresh young blood to the sport with a new purpose-built community loft in the college grounds. They have set up Acord (Angus Community One- Loft Race Development) and secured pound;10,000 from Awards for All Scotland for the new facility.

Animal care students use the pigeons to study avian care as part of their National Certificate and Higher National Certificate courses. Students, school pupils and individuals are being encouraged to enjoy the thrill of racing their own birds by adopting a pigeon from the loft.

The pigeons even offer a range of cross-curricular opportunities for learning, so Acord hopes to attract primary schools for the educational benefits as well as the racing entertainment. The loft has disabled access and will be used by young people with learning difficulties.

As Mr Murphy and loft manager Jim Bruce show off the loft, the pigeons burble contentedly in their new designer home.

"To get to know a pigeon is like knowing a person or a footballer - finding out what button to press and what motivates that individual," says Mr Murphy, gently opening up one of the nesting boxes where the birds breed.

"I always imagine it's like being a football manager. When you are on the pitch, it's your players that are playing for you, just like we are sending our pigeons to the race. There is nothing greater than seeing a pigeon flying 500 or 600 miles on the day and then coming home for you."

Mr Bruce is Acord club secretary and oversees the day-to-day management of the loft. Normally, pigeon fanciers use individual lofts, but with the one-loft formula, the whole community can use it and all their birds race home to this location.

"These one-loft races are held all over the world, the biggest in Sun City, South Africa, with a prize fund of one million dollars," says Mr Bruce.

The Angus loft will breed and race pigeons on a more modest scale and individuals, clubs or school classes will be able to adopt one.

"They will compete against each other on a weekly basis during the racing season," says Mr Bruce, a retired engineer. "They will be able to visit the loft to see their individual pigeons being prepared for racing and also attend the loft on race days to see them arrive home."

The birds can travel at 70 mph with the wind behind them, after being transported by lorry from Scotland to the start points in France and Belgium.

Motivating racing pigeons is a sophisticated business. "If the birds are paired up, one of the systems that works quite well is to separate them prior to the race. The males stay in here and the females will be in another section and they don't get to see each other all week," says Mr Murphy, a member of Arbroath Racing Pigeon Society.

But just before the race there is a brief and tantalising reunion. "A glimpse of each other for 10-15 minutes, no sex basically, and then in the basket and away to the race," he says. He keeps 100 pigeons in a loft in his garden.

Happy memories and anticipation of another reunion encourage the male birds across the miles. They may even drop off for a quick nap during these 17-hour long haul flights. "When they come home, the male always has his hen there for him and that is his reward," he says. "And he gets his hen all day on the Saturday after the race."

The course leader in animal care, Chris Ditchburn, says they teach two units on birds: "They learn about anatomy, health and disease, a little bit of handling and legislation to protect birds."

Twenty-year-old Meghan Leith, who won an Acord scholarship for best student in avian care, has been looking round the loft with her classmates in HNC animal care. She can't fathom how the birds get back: "It's unbelievable".

"There are a lot of scientific theories about how it works," explains Mr Murphy, "whether it's the sun, the solar rays or magnetic fields. There are some cracking examples where scientists have tried to determine whether there is something in the bird's beak that encourages it to come home, and others have determined it's the pigeon's eyesight."

A champion racing pigeon can be a worthwhile investment. "In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a pigeon at public auction sold for pound;118,800. There was also a guy who sold his stock pigeons for $1 million."

But that is not what motivates Mr Murphy: "It's not about money, it's not about being able to say, `I've got the highest-valued bird'; it's about having the best racing bird. I have a two-year-old bird, Rocket, and he has won six times, competing against the whole of Scotland.

"The whole thrill of keeping them is sitting waiting for them. You could sit for hours, but that's the enjoyment in it."

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