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Years of Pleanty and Years of Famine...
Author: Old HandTitle: Years of Pleanty and Years of Famine
Date: 2005-01-08 17:22:35Uploaded by: webmaster
The fancier's greatest problem is not how to feed and how to train his birds to win but how to continue to breed the kind of bird that can be properly fed and trained to win. Plenty of novices write to me and say, 'I manage my birds exactly according to your system but they haven't won anything yet'. Rarely have I the heart to write back and say, 'I'm sorry, matey, but if what you say is true you'll have to consider the necessity of installing some new blood in place of the non-working type you have there now'.

How difficult is it to breed winners and still more winners? Francis Byrne, writing in Country Life on the subject of the Royal Stud, said, ‘The Queen's visit to the Normandy studs is a reminder of the cyclical nature of studs breeding for racing, however well they are managed and however broadly based. The Royal Stud, like the Bousac, Derby, Astor and Rosebery studs, produced a series of great winners, mostly between 1954 and 1959, and then entered one of those long, lean periods that it seems no stud can avoid. For this tantalising and sometimes exasperating experience no one can offer a solution. Matings proceed with careful selection, the slower-staying mares being covered by speedier stallions, the faster mares allied to more stamina, or sometimes both sides being aimed at more speed, but the time that elapses before the arrival of another classic winner may be of any length. When it comes it is almost as likely to be from the most unexpected mating as from the top pair.'

Everything said above by Francis Byrne about racehorse breeding can be applied to racing pigeon breeding, hence the title of this chapter - 'Years of plenty and years of famine'. Every loft in the country passes through the 'plenty' and 'famine' phases, and more than once, too.

Nature, the mother of breeding, seems to prefer numbers to quality. She smiles on the mediocre of her Hock and positively beams on them when their numbers are swollen. She appears to bear nothing but malice for the exceptional one. See how most geniuses are compelled to suffer before they achieve recognition and with what indifference the talented artist is left to starve and die. Governments do not legislate for the needs or the pains of the gifted few; they move only in the interests of the faceless but numerically greater of the crowd element.

In the animal kingdom to be 'different' is to court disaster and exile. In fact the 'different' one is denied the seeming security of the herd or flock. In the insect kingdom to be 'different' is to be dead, sooner or later, when the hive is cleansed. Living species, of all kinds, mentally resent any non-conformity on the part of any individual and in this respect the animals are more dogmatic than Homo sapiens, who acts badly enough towards anyone who walks, talks, or steps outside the book.

Yet here we are, pigeon fanciers all, trying to bring off the unnatural under nature's very nose by striving to raise exceptional pigeons whose great talents will make the flock look silly! After reading Francis Byrne's comment you might be inclined to feel gloomy. After all, his remarks were aimed at the Royal Stud where only the very finest (and most expensive) of horse flesh is housed.

How does racehorse breeding differ from racing pigeon breeding? It doesn't, except that the people who breed racehorses on the whole are less intelligent than those who breed racing pigeons, with the result that pigeon fanciers can easily prove that they know more about livestock breeding than racehorse owners who, according to Francis Byrne's remarks, appear to know absolutely nothing about it.

Those who breed racehorses, and those who breed racing pigeons, can't hope to be reasonably successful as breeders until they have developed the right approach to the problem. Making rash and reckless rushes at it, such as tearing away to buy this bird and that bird, and then run them together in the hope of breeding a winner, is worse than useless and a sheer waste of time and money. Even if Francis Byrne did say that classic winners sometimes emerge from unexpected matings, this does not mean to say that such matings were chancy, as between two bad parents.

What do I mean by 'approach to the problem'? I mean that it is necessary for us to recognise certain bold factors before proceeding to spend good money and to make up matings. What are these factors?

I can only speak from long experience but can you find a better reason for a man putting his opinions down on paper? Right. Then let me begin by saying that breeders do not have to be winners. Fantastic prices have been paid for big winners and everyone knows that when the bird changes hands it is going to be used as a producer, not as a racer, to the new loft. When a fancier pays thousands of pounds for a classic winner he doesn't expect it to produce a load of tripe (which it frequently does do). He firmly believes he is making a sound investment in a bird whose stud successes may be the making of his loft. People who buy racehorses share the same approach to the subject of breeding. Well, I've no wish to interfere with the national redistribution of wealth but any man who pays hundreds of pounds for a classic winner must be a candidate for a brain laundry, unless he is a pigeon dealer who buys the pigeon purely so that he can cash in on its breeding. Unfortunately, we are inflicted with too many dealers.

Fanciers who know how to breed do not pay high prices for actual winners. Instead, they acquire youngsters from the great pigeons and set to work with them in the way I propose to describe in this very important chapter on pigeon breeding.

I have already stated, in the greatest book ever written about racing pigeon breeding (The Strain-makers'), that the best thing for a novice to do is to acquire a classic winning sire of good ancestry as a stud sire. Reader after reader of the 'Strain-makers' wrote to me to say that he simply couldn't afford to acquire such a bird because he wasn't the Bank of England, and so on.... Well, I sympathise with the poverty-stricken novice because that makes two of us who can't afford to practise what I preach. I invariably write back and advise the novice to acquire a son of a classic winner to serve as his stud sire.

In some instances, the novice writes back to say, 'Are you SURE I may do this? Can a son of a classic winner prove to be as good as the sire as a producer?' To which I am bound to reply, 'The gamble is such that it may or may not prove to be a good producer. No one knows until the bird has actually been put to stud.'

Of course, there are certain things one looks for, even in a 4/5-week-old youngster, and expects to find before considering it as a producer. One of these is the eyesign. Then there is the muscle, shape of head, strength of back and so on. But all of these factors can be learnt by any novice with a mind to it.

However, we have touched on one aspect of the 'approach' and we now know that we are not required to bankrupt ourselves in acquiring top stud blood of the classic winning variety but we may proceed with the blood of the top winning birds. How do we move nearer to the heart of our problem?

We accept that a mating involves two animals of opposite sex. Now, which sex can be held to contribute the greatest, or most desirable, influence towards breeding exceptional offspring - the sire or the dam? The 'book', which in this case is represented by Mendel's Law and the Law of Genetics, insists that both sexes contribute an equal 50 per cent to the offspring, as indicated by the chromosomes. In my opinion, the 'book' is an ass. Any fancier of experience knows full well that the percentage of hens that consistently breed winners when mated to a number of cocks is very much greater than the examples of cocks who breed winners with any hen. I venerate textbooks as much as any other man, and I've written quite a number of them, but there are times when a fancier has got to say, 'To hell with the book - my experience proves this or that'. And that is why I say that, when in the act of weighing up the influence of sex on the mating, the scales must go down with a very loud bang on the side of the hen. Those who doubt this should ask why the 7,000 mares are serviced by 30-odd stallions!

The recognition of the hen as being the most important factor in the mating (without in any way deprecating the part played by the cock) greatly helps our approach to the problem of breeding. Why? Because it reminds us not to be a silly ass and chuck away all our potential stud hens in tin-pot club races. We also tell ourselves other things, such as hens being the most difficult to rear (losses of hens when in the 'weeks old' phase is five to one of cocks); that hens go down faster than young cocks in young bird racing, and so on. In fact, if we do a proper job on our minds we are soon sweating with fear and making up our minds never, never to play Russian Roulette with a fancied young hen. As soon as you spot a likely breeder, take no chances with her.

Novices should spend less time staring at and drinking in the beauty of cocks and pay more attention to the physical and mental virtues of their young hens, for therein lies the future of the loft. It should be the ambition of every one of my novices to acquire such knowledge that he can recognise the makings of a producer hen at sight. Don't run away with the idea that this feat cannot be performed. Even as I write I know of several fanciers who can pick out a potential producer hen with ease.

Another problem arises in our approach to breeding winners. Having selected a number of likely female producers how do we test our judgment? The average fancier would say, 'Oh, that's easy, just train and race 'em and you'll know if you've got a producer hen when one of her progeny wins the King's Cup.' Alas, any such process would eat up the years so that, by the time the classic winner appears, the hen has passed her best breeding years. What we want is a yardstick which can give us an indication, if not absolute surety, when the progeny of the hen is still only months old.

And this is how you do it. Send the youngsters to the 100-mile racepoint for single-up tossing. Take a note of the times, then send them again and again. After the third toss you will know whether any of the youngsters is a potential classic winner and, what's more, you'll know which hen is its mum. That hen has then staked a preliminary claim for promotion as the No. 1 stock hen. If you carry out this simple test every year you will have little difficulty in becoming a consistent breeder of winners.

Why don't racehorse breeders do a similar thing? Well, their problems are not quite the same as ours. For instance, they aren't looking for a 'thinking' animal which also possesses strength, the strength of fleetness of hoof. Their animals are going to be provided with a jockey with spurred heels and a whip. The horse is only required to gear his mind to running a bit faster and thereby dodge the indignity and the pain of contact with both spur and whip. But the horse must be strong. You can put stamina into it by inspired feeding but strength is something given by nature and improved upon by man.

But how does a racehorse breeder know that his yearlings have the required strength for, say, the heart-breaking business of finishing the Derby on the uphill, murderous straight? The cold, hard fact is that he doesn't. Why doesn't he? The answer is because, as I said above, the racehorse breeder is on average a pretty dull sort of thinker. The retort to that bit of non-flattery is, 'All right, and how would you prove the potential of the yearling horse?' Of course, I was ready for that retort, ready and waiting.

In 1783 that remarkable genius among engineers, James Watt, anxious to create a measurement of power, took a horse to a well. There, the horse was fitted with a rope which was passed over the pulley wheel which was suspended over the centre of the well and tied to heavy weights. The horse was then persuaded to pull on the rope in an attempt to discover how many pounds of dead weight it could lift up to a height of one foot in one minute of pulling. The horse chosen by Watt for this performance returned the surprisingly high figure of approximately 33,000ft lbs in one minute. The actual figure may not interest you but one aspect of this test will and that is because no two horses would be likely to return the same figure. Many horses may have lifted less than 33,0001b but a number may have exceeded that figure because their strength was greater than that of the test horse. Therefore, another purpose of the horse-power test would be to reveal the strength of the individual horse. And anyone who is interested in horse racing knows full well that horse-strength, in terms of horse-power, is the determining factor in horse racing. Where there is no strength there can be no speed and no stamina.

I have said before, and I repeat, that too little is done by breeders to strengthen and enlarge the hearts of young racehorses. Putting them between shafts to haul some tidy loads around would be beneficial to them, always provided such loads were reasonable for a young horse. Racehorse breeding has been in a straightjacket ever since they compiled the Stud Book.

We know that in breeding the sire contributes the virtues (and the vices) of the strain to the young but what precisely does the hen confer which is of even greater value to the next generation? Remember that the hen makes the egg and delivers it. Therefore, her health at the time is of much greater importance to the mating than that of the cock. Further, I have carried out numerous tests to prove this point.

I have mated a hen five times with the same cock, but on each occasion her health was different. Then I worked out the progeny and proved for myself that the youngster bred from her when she was in her best state of health was unquestionably the best of her brood. When raced against his brothers (bred from the same mating but from a dam who was not at her peak health state), he was outstanding. Therefore, what we cherish most of the hen's contribution to the new progeny is her health at the time of the mating.

All the arguments about which round of eggs produces the best youngsters are founded exclusively on the issue of the hen's health, plus the diet of both the hen and her nestlings. One is of no use without the other but, while anyone with intelligence can contrive a diet, not every one of us can bring a hen into the very peak of health at the right time.

Then there is the type of hen who seems to be blessed with exceptional health at all times, the super-robust type. There are others who enjoy average good health but never seem to acquire the super health of the top producer hen.

Therein lies the gamble and the risk which every novice must take when he goes off to buy 'one off the champion'. The champion's health can be taken for granted, since he couldn't have flown as a champion if his health had been suspect. But the hen to which he is mated and from whom you wish to acquire offspring is a very different kettle of fish. Is she the fittest hen in the loft? Is her health always that much better than that of any other hen in the place?

Some might say, 'If she's been a great winner then her health, like that of the cock, may be taken for granted'. This statement is rarely correct. So many hens raced to the bitter end fail to produce anything worthwhile at stock. I know of some champion racing hens who produced nothing but rubbish after their performances. No doubt the strain of long-distance racing can and does affect the producing powers of a hen. It can also ruin the productive power of the cock. Many a great racing cock has gone sterile as the result of work strain, never again to sire another youngster. Over-strained hens don't appear to go barren; they just produce a load of rubbish. It naturally follows that the great producer hens are, in the main, the unraced ones.

Only the breeder and owner of the stock hen knows whether she is the fittest bird in the loft and the one who is fit enough to produce a champion. He will know if she has ever ailed, ever had an off-day, or strayed, whether she is precocious, always last to time, never hatches late, or a weakling, and always lays eggs that are perfection itself. An outsider is in no position to achieve this wisdom, or observe the vital pointers to a hen's health, hence the gamble he takes when 'buying one off the champ'.

There are so many imponderables in pigeon racing that on the face of it we are entitled to call it one big gamble. So it is, but it is our responsibility, as fanciers, to do all we can to reduce the odds against us. We do this by using our loaf and straining our intelligence, even to its breaking point. And we are never entitled to expect miracles to occur in our lofts. When we mate our birds in the spring of the year, we must be convinced in our minds that we have, indeed, mated the best cock to the best and healthiest hen, not just on paper and as the result of studying paper pedigrees (which can sometimes be most misleading) but because we have taken pains to discover that the hen is 100% fit at the time she goes to nest to make her eggs. Confirm this issue by studying the eggs she lays. Are they perfect in shape, texture etc? In that case your good opinion of her health is partly confirmed.

Now watch her as she incubates her eggs, noting her behaviour off the nest as well as on it. Does feeding the youngster fag her out, causing her to look mucky around the beak, listless when off the nest? After rearing the youngsters without seeming to have suffered any sort of strain, does she promptly go to nest and, when her first round are 21 days old, lay two more perfect eggs? Did the sheen on her neck and breast ever dull, or her eye cease to burn fiercely? Were her feet just as warm when she was off the nest and standing on the perch? Have her droppings always been firm and round and never sloppy or loose? Has she ever sat hunched up with feather blown? Has her appetite ever been known to fail?

There, and nowhere else, will he ever discover whether or not destiny has delivered a top producer hen into his hands and a lifetime of a winning career can be built on just one such hen. Every fancier raises at least one such hen but what happens to them all? Fanciers with more brawn than brain chuck them away, probably in tuppenny-halfpenny club races, just because they can't be bothered to study each bird individually and look for signs of that prepotent hen who can make their fame and fortune. I don't race any hen until I've bred off her and this simple act of patience alone is probably the reason why I get more than my share of good producer hens.

Old Hand

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