BLACKPOOL (AFP) - In January, thousands of pigeon fanciers flock to the seaside resort of Blackpool where the fastest and most beautiful pigeons are cooed over by some of the most expert keepers in the game.
The British Homing World Show of the Year is Britain's biggest gathering of pigeon fanciers, attracting up to 15,000 people to the northwest coast of England.
"Whether you are a new member, curious about pigeons, or a veteran pigeon fancier, there is something for everyone at the show," the event promises.
It is held in Blackpool's historic Winter Gardens venue.
The Beatles, Queen and Oasis have played in the ballroom and every post-World War II British prime minister has spoken there during party conferences.
But on the third weekend in January, the ballroom is filled with more than 2,000 pigeons, divided into those bred for showing and for racing.
"The atmosphere is very good. It's basically a reunion for pigeon fanciers. There are people from all over the country meeting up once a year," said David Trippett, chairman of the show's organising committee.
"It's all good competition. Win or lose, people still have a smile on their face," he told AFP.
The stereotypical portrayal of a pigeon fancier - working class and from the industrial cities of northern England - no longer rings true.
Queen Elizabeth II keeps pigeons, and the royal loft manager was at the show.
Trippett said it took a special kind of person to keep pigeons.
"It's commitment. You have to have a commitment to pigeons to be a good pigeon racer," he said.
"It's a 365-days-a-year occupation. You can't go off for a couple of days and leave them. They need cleaning out, feeding, training.
"It's a lifestyle. You just do it and enjoy it. There's no finer experience than seeing your pigeons coming home, pigeons that you have fed, bred and nurtured, coming back to your loft from a 500-mile race.
You think: 'I did that'." The show dates back to 1972 and has been held in Blackpool since 1977. Profits go to charity.
Besides the ballroom, trade stalls sell every conceivable pigeon accessory, and birds themselves are up for sale.
Pigeon v tech
Trippett said the sport was struggling to compete in a world of video games and digital entertainment.
"It's fighting with a technological age and it is declining because of that but we are coming up with new incentives to bring more people into the sport," he said.
There's a young fanciers programme and lofts are being installed in schools. They are particularly successful with children with special educational needs, said Trippett.
Technology is also creeping into the sport, with live streams of lofts.
Pigeon fancier John Bell won the supreme champion show pigeon title for the seventh time - and the fourth time in a row.
This year's winner, who is unnamed, was a one-year-old chequer cock pigeon, who won a competition in Scotland to qualify for Blackpool.
"It's a fantastic achievement. It's the pinnacle. It's like winning the lottery for everyone else," Bell told AFP.
"You've got to keep them in the best condition you can; bug free, lice free. The preparation for next year starts now.
"On the judging day, you're prepping them up to keep them spotless.
"We pride ourselves on this."