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Tales from the Salford Pigeon Mafia
'It’s not something you can learn — it’s a sense'
By Dani Cole
Watching pigeon men handle their birds feels like witnessing an act of superstition. The birds are peered at and cradled; their wings are opened, the feathers fanning out like a deck of cards in a dealer’s hand. A racing pigeon is a sleek and miraculous thing, nothing like a street pigeon. The feathers under your palm feel like velvet. No pigeon is the same colour; dove grey, blue, the colour of a raincloud, grizzle, checkered like a board.
It was The Wizard who told Les Green he had the knack for pigeons. The Wizard was a stocky man in his thirties; a plasterer who rarely worked because he’d rather put in overtime caring for his birds. He housed them in a loft (a shelter for pigeons) in a ginnel at the back of his terrace in Urmston. The Wizard taught him everything he knew.
Every Saturday morning, they would head to Shudehill, where the pigeon men met with their baskets of shuffling feathers. There, birds were exchanged or sold. When Les was a teenager and started racing, the pigeon men gifted him some of theirs. “In this pigeon game, you have to have the knack,” The Wizard said. “It’s not something you can learn — it’s a sense.” What was the knack? Les remembers thinking. He was perplexed. He was worried the Wizard was mistaken; maybe he didn't have it at all.
Les grew up on Ordsall Estate in Salford in the ‘60s and ‘70s and was one of nine. He self-describes as being an “animal-mad” child, but he was fascinated most of all by pigeons. He could set them free far away, but they’d always fly back to him. His first loft was in a bin shed that barely measured six by six feet. The bins were stored on the bottom, and the pigeons were kept on a platform on the top. “I came from humble beginnings,” he says.
A pigeon racing supremo
It’s been over 40 years since he started pigeon fancying — breeding pigeons and racing them. Based on the number of wins he’s collected over the last few years, he’s one of the UK’s most successful pigeon fanciers, specialising in sprint racing. He won his first race when he was 15 at the Pendlebury Club, his winning bird was called Fed Cock (Fed being short for “federation”, a league of pigeon racing, he explains poker-faced, and cock being the sex of the pigeon). Another of his birds called Croston Barkers came in third.
He decided he wanted to get serious with his hobby in 1989, and won his first national race, the North West Grand National, in 1995. His pigeons swept in first, second, third and fifth. When he was 16, he left school and got a job with a fishmonger at the Arndale Market so he could pay for his birds. Since then, he’s been a “Jack of all trades” working to supplement his pigeons, mainly in construction and roofing.
During the ‘90s and ‘00s, Les and three friends were at one point known as the Salford Pigeon Mafia, because they continuously obliterated their competition. Les admits that when was younger he knocked about with people who had a reputation for being tough, and later worked as a doorman. But the Mafia? “People put two and two together, and get fifty,” he scoffs. But his reputation as “The Mafia” is one he quietly enjoys and sometimes plays up to. “I love winning,” he says.
According to A Very British Coop — a book by sports journalist Mark Collings about Les — The Mafia’s success was so great that rivals thought they were juicing up the birds. The rivals were right that the Mafia were working smart, not hard, but they weren’t cheating. Instead, they were using methods that increased the drive and speed of the birds.
One method Les tells me about deploys the same psychology that humans fall victim to every day of the week. Think of practically every great pop song in history: think about love, think about yearning. Now apply the same ingredients to pigeons: take two pigeons, let them fall for each other. Let them have chicks, if they want to. Take the male pigeon away to the races. He’d do anything to get back to his family again, so he flies faster, more intensely, to the finish line. Prefer a less emotionally excruciating method? Try the darkness system — by blacking out the loft during the summer months, pigeons are tricked into thinking it’s winter and they moult feathers, and regrow new ones (which are in good nick for racing).
At 56, Les knows he has the knack, which it turns out is not some amorphous and mysterious force coursing through the universe, but a mix of intuition and knowledge. When I visit his loft in Irlam, we are joined by Lee and Tom, two shaven-headed Barnsley men in their thirties, who have come to give him some of their birds to sell.
Tom moved to Norwich to work for a chemical manufacturer, and has been fancying for five years. When he was able to get a loft, “I came to Les straight away, and started winning straight away,” he says. In A Very British Coop, Les is a swaggering Salfordian character, who peppers his sentences with fuck. Today, he’s a quiet and thoughtful pigeon man — he later explains that he’s trying “very, very hard” not to swear so much, and that he never means any offence. He takes us to see his birds.
The first thing that strikes me are the eyes, which are sunset-hued: deep orange or red. “People believe the eyes tell a story about the pigeons,” Les says. Some fanciers think that the eye’s colour and shape give clues about its breeding qualities; the distance it can race. There are pigeon eye-sign specialists who evaluate birds with magnifying glasses, and when pigeons are sold, photographs of their eyes are included on their profile. He’s not a believer. “It’s not a science,” he says.
All the same, he concedes that successful pigeons do have a certain look about them. “You have to have a feeling for them”, he explains. He likes a bird that’s balanced, with silk-soft feathers (coarse feathers are no good). Better still is a bird that settles quickly, is alert and watchful. “That’s how you tell a pigeon’s got brains.”
Good pigeon men know their birds. Les can identify every pigeon in his colony — which changes each season — reciting their ring numbers by heart. He can tell when a bird has reached its optimum racing weight because it feels like a cork in his hand, buoyant yet sturdy.
A hobby turned big business
Pigeon fancying was traditionally a sport enjoyed by working-class men, “middle-aged Northerners,” a 1995 Observer article wrote, who waited like “flat-capped Penelopes” in their allotments for their treasured birds to return. During the 18th century, the leisured classes kept pigeons because of their “aesthetic and intellectual appeal,” Dr Martin Johnes of Swansea University writes in the Cultural and Social History journal.
Pigeon fanciers were allotted the same category as drunkards in the 19th century; in the 1850s, a Bolton “inspector of nuisances” was “actively trying to exterminate the hobby.” The bond between a man and his birds was usually lifelong — for their wives, many comforted themselves that “it was undoubtedly better to be married to a pigeon fancier than a drunk.” Les has been married to his wife Ruth for 30 years, and she often helps him with the birds.
These days, fancying has become big business. The competition, the same Observer article added, was “fierce as a horse race.” Like any sport, people can place bets on races. The internet opened up the global market. Winning pigeons fetch huge sums at auction, with prices running into the millions for a single bird.
The growing popularity of one-loft racing — where pigeons belonging to different people are housed and trained together by a single keeper — has also upped the stakes. Anyone can take part in one-loft racing — you simply buy a bird, pay a fee to enter it into a loft and wait for race day. In the UK, the entry fee is part of the prize pool, and can be between £100-200. Last year the maximum capacity for a loft was 1,500 pigeons: potential pooled winnings of £150,000 to £300,000.
“The olden days of the flat cap and whippet, that’s really gone,” Les says. For him, the sport has always been a hobby, but with demand for his birds coming from places like China, Saudi Arabia and South Africa, he’s conscious of the taxman. Fanciers can sell their colony — the birds in their loft — after each season. After the 2019 season, he sold his entire colony of 253 pigeons for almost £500,000. A pigeon called Golden Kittel went for over £17,000 and another called Special Blue went for £14,000.
Where Thoroughbreds and Greyhounds are prized for their speed and are a distinct breed, racing pigeons are not a specific breed, though all pigeons are descended from the rock dove. “They’re all mongrels, really,” he says. Pigeon fanciers buy birds from “families” and the lineage of a bird is traced through its fancier. Golden Kittel was the son of Kittel, a pigeon belonging to Belgium fancier Dirk Van den Bulck.
When Les visited Dirk in 2013, his pigeons were selling for €200 (£167). Within three years, you couldn't get one for less than €10,000 (around £8,300). “They went sky-high with prices, because of all the winning they did,” he says. Belgium has long dominated the world of pigeon racing as its families stretch back generations. To Les, it’s “the Mecca” of pigeons. In 2020, two Chinese businessmen under the aliases of Super Duper and Hitman entered a two-week bid war over a Belgian pigeon hen called New Kim who sold for £1.3m. Super Duper emerged as the victor.
Pigeon fanciers can make a name for themselves if they win prestigious races that come with serious prize money. The Victoria Falls race in Zimbabwe, and the Million Dollar Race South Africa have prize pools of over £1m. The Pioneer Club race is held in Beijing and is “the most lucrative, biggest race in China,” he says. “The Chinese changed pigeon racing forever.”
In 2018, the Pioneer Club was won by a pigeon called James’s Legend, bred by Taiwanese businessman James Huang. The bird won four races, each 321 miles (500km) in distance. According to Les, the prize pool totalled over £3m and Mr Huang won £400,000 and the keys to seven new cars, including a Mercedes-AM G 63. James’s Legend was sold at auction for £2.3m. “It was an amazing pigeon,” he says. “The guys had never seen anything like it.” In the end, Mr Huang bought his own bird back.
Pre-pandemic, Les often travelled to China to meet clients and had a stall with the China International Pigeon Exhibition in Langfang, a city to the southeast of Beijing and had an agent out there. Because of England’s varied landscapes and weather, home-bred pigeons are starting to take hold of the Chinese market. “It’s easier to race pigeons in Belgium for sprint racing,” he says, because the land is flat. But the terrain in China is varied and mountainous, like in England.
“Over the years, English pigeons have been bred to be a bit tougher and tackle different terrains,” he says. When he sold his colony in 2019, his top five pigeons went to China. “The Chinese crave our pigeons,” he says. He estimates it’ll take a few years until he can ship his pigeons over there again, because the quarantine rules are so strict. Les notes that “In the game, very few people make money from it,” and often fancier’s earnings from won races or auctions go straight back into the care for their birds. I ask him how much money he’s won during his career. “I have no idea,” he says. “The more you win, the more you spend. I don’t really want a lot of money.”
‘There’s no better feeling’
For pigeon fanciers, the thrill of the sport isn’t like the adrenaline rush of seeing a horse thunder past the post or seeing five, six figures drop into their bank accounts. It’s a simpler feeling: the satisfaction of seeing a bird return safely. There are highs and lows; it’s not uncommon for pigeons to get lost or die from exhaustion if a fancier enters it in a race with a distance it can’t handle.
Some are felled by birds of prey, which have become a problem. A peregrine nested near Les’s loft a few years ago, and his birds refused to fly. “Our biggest threat to racing pigeons now is the predation of peregrine falcons,” he says. The loss of each bird is keenly felt. Fanciers pour their attention and care into the birds. “When you see that first pigeon…” Lee says, “all that week [of work] is just for those thirty seconds.” He’s a labourer, and doesn’t have as much time for his pigeons as Les does, but he’s excited to go home to them.
Les gets up every morning at 4.45am. He never goes on holiday, and got married to Ruth when it wasn’t racing season. After all, there can be anywhere from 3,000 to 5,0000 pigeons in a race, but there is only one winner. He still gets the same emotions seeing his birds fly towards him as he did when he was a teenager. “To see them come home is one thing,” he says. “But to see them win? There’s no better feeling. You can’t sleep at night.”