PIGEON racing is no flight of fancy for those dedicated to the sport. It's a labour of love, a daily grind of feeding, watering and training.
Lofts big and small are dotted across Rotherham and the rest of the country and have been since the 19th century.
Birds are bred and nurtured and on race days they're loaded into trucks and taken to towns like Salisbury and Newbury or over the English Channel to Le Mans and Poitiers where they're released into the air and begin the long race for home.
Life has been hard for pigeon racers lately.
The Covid-19 pandemic has clipped the wings of pigeon racers, stopping Channel races from France.
There have been big numbers of birds lost too.
It takes more than that to knock the fanciers off their stride though. Many have been at it for decades, men of vast experience like Pete Overton.
He comes from Swallownest, a village with a rich heritage of pigeon racing dating back more than 50 years.
Pete was only 20, a young man enjoying the swinging '60s, when he first got into pigeons.
“My dad, my uncle and my cousin kept them so it was a natural thing for me to do,” he says.
“Some people go golfing or fishing or to the boozer or to watch football. I got into pigeon racing and I've been racing them ever since.”
Pete, now 77, is down at his loft every day tending to his flock alongside his duties as president and stand-in secretary of Swallownest Homing Society.
It takes up a lot of his time and that's something his wife, Ann, regularly reminds him about.
“My missus plays pop with me sometimes,” smiles Pete.
“Where've you been?” she'll say.
When I tell her I've been at the loft she'll say: “You think more of them than me.”
“The funny thing is, I kept pigeons before I met the missus!”
Pete is talking to me from his base off Falconer Lane.
“You don't realise how much time you spend down here,” he says.
“I come down to let them out for an hour in a morning and, if I've time, I get them to do an hour at tea time.
“The birds have to have a set routine you see — the time you feed, the time you let them out, the time you let them back in. You have to do it every day. You can't have a day off. It's like training little athletes.
“The only time I don't let them out is when it's chucking it down with rain.”
Pete and his fellow Swallownest racers benefit in being only a short distance from Swallownest Miners Welfare Club, which is something of a local hub for the sport.
Big and spacious outside, it has ample room for the pigeon racers from across Rotherham and Sheffield to drive over and put their basketed birds onto a big truck to be driven to their particular race start destination.
Races range from 75 miles through to 500 miles or more and on average a racing pigeon will fly 48-50mph in calm conditions.
Birds have electronic tag rings and as soon as they get back at the loft they're clocked in on an electronic timing system.
When the pigeon puts its foot on it, it rings and registers the finishing time, just like when you scan items at the supermarket.
When there is a Channel race, it's an extra long wait for the flyers like Pete.
“I can be down at the loft all day and I'm back there early the next morning to make sure the cats don’t get hold of any of the birds that arrive back overnight,” he says.
Flying such long distances, it is no surprise that birds are lost en route.
“This year has been particularly bad,” adds Pete.
“The Royal Pigeon Society sets up race points where birds are flying north, south, east and west.
“If flocks cross paths, they'll join another flock and go off in a different direction and don't get home.
“Pigeons are the same as starlings. They like flying together.
“The losses are heavy because there are so many birds in the sky at one go.”
Pigeon racing can be a lucrative business.
A recent race had prize money of £16,000 and a racer at nearby Woodhouse pocketed £7,000 from one big win, with the prize sometimes split between breeder and racer.
Pete races in the North Midlands Continental Club, a specialist club.
“If you want to go for the big money then that's the sort of club you have to go in,” he says.
Pigeon racing is also an expensive business.
There are Federation fees, club fees as well as corn to buy. Good birds also don't come cheap and can change hands for hundreds of pounds locally.
The world record paid for a racing pigeon is about £150,000.
Ounce for ounce, that makes it more valuable than a race horse and, sadly, the pigeons' peak racing years are all too brief.
Pete explained: “Their peak racing years are the first two or three years but some get burnt out because they're sent racing every week. I don't do that. I get them ready for a set race.
“Some birds will race until they're six or seven years old.
“We once had a hen that won a 500-mile race when it was ten and did it four or five times.
“I have one pigeon that is 15 years old. He's just a stock pigeon but he bred more than 20 winners. You don't get rid of birds like that.”
Pete, who worked as a foreman at an industrial cleaning company, is proud that he's had more 500-mile race wins than anyone else in his club.
He's one of a dying breed, a solo operator, after two previous helpers passed away. Many lofts are “three or four-handed” now to spread the workload.
The sport is holding up well despite the many modern-day distractions and the Swallownest club still has 16 regular flyers
After 57 years following a hobby he loves, the race is far from over for Pete Overton, one of Rotherham's most experienced pigeon men.
“I'm not one to sit at home in the day watching TV,” he says, before locking up the loft and heading home.
“I still enjoy racing pigeons and while ever I'm fit and able, this is what I'll do.”
THE pigeon race season runs from April until September and in the off season, come rain or snow, Pete Overton goes down to his loft every day to change their water and make sure they're all right.
This is also where the unglamorous part of bird keeping comes in.
“If a bird is huddled up, I'll look at their droppings to see if anything is wrong with them,” he said.
“Sometimes a bird will just fall off the perch and die so I have to cut them up and have a look inside to see what's wrong.
“I had two die once and couldn't weigh it up. I looked in them and found they'd been eating slug pellets.”
RACING pigeons are intelligent creatures and love home comforts.
“People don't realise how cleve they are,” says Pete Overton.
“We lost a pigeon a couple of months ago. Another flyer didn't know he had it so he basketed it it up and put a ring on it.
“He was trying to train it so one day he let it go for a fly and it flew straight back to me instead.
“Pigeons know where they are better off and where their luxuries are. They're not daft.”
THE most Pete Overton has paid for a pigeon is £250 — but the best he had was given him for free in a swap.
“It bred winners. It was unreal,” said Pete. “It laid six eggs and it had six winners.
“I had another pigeon called Pound for Pound. It won me a gold medal and a merit award.”