The fantastic business of Belgian carrier pigeons

Written October 5, 2022 at 11:21 amUpdated October 5, 2022 at 11.34

On July 29, the organizers of a pigeon race from Narbonne made a serious error of judgement. While severe thunderstorms were reported in the north, they still decided to release the 26,149 birds that were “basketed” in the competition. The result was a bloodbath: thousands of birds, literally disoriented by the weather, disappeared or perished.

This ornithological drama made a lot of noise in Belgium because the kingdom, the cradle of pigeon racing in the 18th century.e century, remains today his favorite country. At the end of August, a thousand of the approximately 10,000 Belgian pigeons registered in Narbonne had not found their loft. A heartbreak for the breeders concerned, who develop a strong emotional relationship with their birds. “I lost the two I had put in the basketsays Eddy Martinot, a 50-year-old green classroom teacher from Beauraing, in southern Wallonia. It’s a lot of work for nothing, but also an emotional loss. Right now it hurts me to see my two empty cupboards. »

For the most professional breeders, it was also basically a big financial loss, because a “champion” pigeon, which stands well in the most prestigious races, can sell for several thousand euros as breeding stock. With Chinese and Taiwanese buyers entering the market in recent years, prices have skyrocketed. In 2020, the 2-year-old female New Kim was sold for 1.6 million euros to a Chinese billionaire, beating the record set the year before by the male Armando, who went for 1.2 million euros on the same auction platform, Pipa (Pigeon). Paradise). For Gaston Van de Wouwer, the proud owner of New Kim, this jackpot had the flavor of consecration at the time of retirement. This fantastic sale confirmed the excellence of the cluster of breeders in the Berlaar region, southeast of Antwerp.

Strategies a bit perverse

In this impeccably dressed village, another renowned breeder, Jelle Roziers, has agreed to receive us and (carefully) raise the curtain on the very closed and very secret universe of Belgian pigeon racing. “I got my first ceiling when I was 12,” he says, sitting on a sofa in his garden, in shorts and a T-shirt. “It’s a passion that runs in the family, my grandfather had pigeons, my father, my uncles. » It is better to be passionate because it is many limitations. “In summer I get up around 4:45 a.m., in winter a little after 6:00 a.m. It’s hard to go on vacation. Of course, I can ask another breeder to take care of my birds, but I trust very few people. »

Pigeon racing is the full-time occupation of this 39-year-old Fleming, who also manages the schedule of the four young children in the house when his wife is at work. It is necessary to ensure that the pigeons feed well, “with the right balance of omega-3s, vitamins, minerals”. Jelle Roziers collaborates with specialist nutrition expert Eddy Noel. He has had the same vet for twenty years. The swallow passage, at the bottom of the garden, is impeccably maintained. “The best way to motivate carrier pigeons is to give them a habitat where they feel good and safe, away from predators. »

However, some breeders resort to tricks, sometimes a little perverse, to speed up the escape of their champions. For example, by introducing a rival male to the female of a competitor to make him understand that he must hurry to find his girlfriend. Or by starting with clever calculations so that the eggs of a female hatch just before a race, so that the young mother is in a hurry to find her offspring.

In pigeon breeding by Jelle Roziers, in Iteghem in Flanders, last September.nick hannes for Les Echos Weekend

Every second counts in these races, where the birds can spin at more than 100 km/h. If all entrants start from the same place where they have been transported in baskets with “transporters”, there is no finish line. Each animal, thanks to its innate compass, joins its swallow beat. Via an electronic ring attached to a leg, a tracking system records the exact time of arrival, after which a computer calculates the average speed of each participant. The winner is not necessarily the first to arrive, but the fastest. The pigeons from the Berlaar region usually fly in squadrons, which gives them a competitive advantage. Eddy Martinot also complains that the course of the race systematically serves the Walloons: “In 2022, out of the twenty organized, only two competitions started from the Rhone Corridor, which in theory favors pigeons from the east and south of Belgium. This year, the weather conditions remained very stable (warm and east wind), which further highlighted the advantages of the Flemish colonies. »

irreversible decline

Denis Sapin, chairman of the National Sports Committee of the Royal Belgian Pigeon Federation (FRCB), remains convinced that the Games will remain open. “The beauty of this sport is that an isolated pigeon from a very small breeder in the Ardennes can very well win a prestigious race”, he explains excitedly at the Halle headquarters, in front of an impressive mural depicting a giant dove with a searching eye. Breeders know how to read the potential in the birds’ eyes – and see emotions there too. This is assured by Didier Tison, spokesman for the FRCB and the breeder himself “Every time we see them come out on top in a competition, we have tears in our eyes”.

Every time we see them come out on top in a competition, we have tears in our eyes.

Didier Tison, pigeon breeder

These enthusiasts are heirs to a long tradition dating back to the 18th centurye century. “Many civilizations used carrier pigeons, from the Persians to the Romans, but in Belgium pigeon racing developed with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the working class”. says Françoise Lempereur, specialist in intangible cultural heritage at the University of Liège, former journalist for public radio and television, who fell into pigeon racing to prepare a program. “For the workers, it was a leisure escape that didn’t cost too much and didn’t require too much infrastructure”, she sums up.

In the late 1950s, Belgium still had 200,000 breeders. But modern life, the seduction of competing leisure activities, the democratization of holidays, the multiplication of dangers for birds (power lines, predators, telecommunications networks) have led to an irreparable decline. The FRCB still today claims 20,000 members, 80% Flemish. “In Wallonia we can certainly incriminate a fussy regulation which complicated the construction of swallow passages”, sighs Didier Tison.

With globalization, players from Asia and the Persian Gulf have taken a lot of interest in pigeons “made in Belgium”, a brand so recognized that Dutch breeders are settling in Belgium to take advantage of it. This has led to a professionalization to which the Pipa platform, which establishes exclusive contracts with certain breeders, has greatly contributed.

Jelle Roziers, here in her loft, teamed up in 2015 with a Chinese partner to open up a promising market.

Jelle Roziers, here in her loft, teamed up in 2015 with a Chinese partner to open up a promising market.Nick Hannes for Les Echos Weekend

In 2015, Jelle Roziers teamed up with a Chinese partner, “Green” Xiang, to more easily open doors in the Middle Kingdom. The collaboration naturally bears many fruits: Jelle Roziers’ company (which he still owns 100%) generated a nice profit in 2021. The fancier has tattooed Chinese characters on his forearm: “That’s my name and my zodiac sign, Leo. » On the day of our visit, his face lights up when he receives a message from China: “Good news, a new sale. »

Given the importance of winning prestigious races, there have been doping scandals in the past. As in cycling, cheaters resorted to increasingly stronger substances: “Steroids, anabolics, there are now pages and pages of banned products”, says Didier Tison. Jelle Roziers, who wins many races, has been checked (we analyze bird droppings) three years in a row, in 2017, 2018 and 2019. “Completely clean”, he comments.

The patience of the carriers

We sense among some pigeon fanciers a nostalgia for the time when the sector was less rooted in the demand for performance, “when the competitors were satisfied with baskets of flowers, ribbons, cups to display in the living room”, in the words of Françoise Lemperor. The future of the sector is in doubt. “It takes a long time, it becomes more and more professional, we have less and less joy. Professionals will keep to themselves. predicts Eddy Martinot, who after thirty years of competition sometimes thinks about not participating anymore. “And for ten years, because of hawks, hawks, hawks, when I release my birds, I’m stressed, I’m afraid of losing them. »

In pigeon breeding by Jelle Roziers, in Iteghem in Flanders, last September.

In pigeon breeding by Jelle Roziers, in Iteghem in Flanders, last September.Nick Hannes for Les Echos Weekend

He is convinced that the school has a fundamental role to play in the dissemination of this Belgian heritage. “You can introduce pigeon racing in any subject, have students calculate the speed of a pigeon, have them study geography in a course, study the role of pigeons in the world wars”, he lists. FRCB carries out information campaigns in schools. But even Jelle Roziers is visibly hesitant to recommend her sons take up the torch: “It’s too much work.” For Didier Tison, “the future will go through tandems, even associations of three breeders” to relieve stress.

He regrets that he no longer hears on public radio the messages that the Federation once sent out to publicize the conditions at the race’s starting points. When the weather was unfavorable, we temporized: “The transporters are waiting. » This beautiful expression gave its title to a book by Françoise Lempereur and a 1999 film with Benoît Poelvoorde. On July 29, the carriers should have been waiting.

To the pigeons, the grateful homeland

In Brussels, in the Sainte-Catherine district, there is a bronze statue from the 1930s which pays tribute to the role played by pigeons during the First World War. These birds have served as crucial messengers in many conflicts. During the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870, they were invaluable to the Parisians in maintaining contact with the rest of the country (by miniaturizing the shipments). During the Great War all belligerents had recourse to it. Vaillant, the last bird at Commander Raynal’s disposal, surrounded in Fort Vaux during the Battle of Verdun, received a posthumous citation. Pigeons returned to service during World War II, for example in support of the resistance movement. It is believed that Daesh also used it in the 2010s in Syria.

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