Pigeon Racing in Malta - by Tony Harte, Gozo, Malta

The islands which constitute the Republic of Malta are situated almost dead centre of the Mediterranean sea. Malta covers 243 sq km and is some 30 km long, by 18 km wide and the island of Gozo, is approximately 13.5 km by 7 km. Sicily is only 90 km to the north and Tunisia/North Africa, is 285 km to the south.

Pigeon racing in Malta started in 1947, by some British ex-pats who had married Maltese and were living here. Using the Army pigeons that had been used during the second, World War and with members names such as Hall, Cooper, etc they formed the first racing pigeon club, The Malta Racing Pigeon Club, based at Sliema. At first they used to have to take the pigeons from the club, down to the quay, to be loaded on to the Ferry to Sicily. Then later they would have to send a telegram to the agent in Italy telling him when to release the pigeons. The second club to open, was the National Racing Pigeon Society, based in Marsa, followed by Hamrun Pigeon club and then Birkirkara RPC and these were the four clubs in existence until 1979. Now there are 24 clubs in the Malta Racing Federation, (including 2 in Gozo) which has around 1200 + members.

Due to the small geographical area covered, the velocity system is not used and it is the first bird in the clock that wins. Members are only allowed to enter a maximum of 10 birds per race, with the season in Malta being from November until May. In the summer the temperature is often in excess of 30C, whereas in the winter the pigeons have to contend with high winds and changeable weather. There are no separate races for young birds and they have to compete against the old birds, the only advantage being, that racing with experienced pigeons, they can be helped to face the arduous 90 km sea crossing, that every pigeon has to face in each and every race.

There are 27 races in the season made up of 20 races classified as short distance and 7 races classified as long distance. The short distance races are made up of 2 races from Pozzallo, Sicily, (90 km), 12 races from Belvedere,(155 km) and 6 races from Messina,(288 km). The 7 long distance races are made up from 3 races from ST Euphemia, Italy (390 km), 2 races from Metaponto (550 km), 1 race from Bari (630 km) and finally 1 race from Manfredonia (660 km).

Races are held weekly throughout the season, normally with basketting, on a Friday. The pigeons are basketed on a Friday at the respective club and then taken directly to the Federation transporters at Marsa, then transported by sea to Sicily/Italy and then driven overland to the race point, for a Sunday liberation. In my club members take it in turns, on rotation, to accompany the pigeons to the Federation transporters and to load the truck with the empty baskets from the previous race, to be returned to the club for use the following week. The manual clocks are set on the morning of the race and then punched on the evening of the race. In my club we have to take the first three pigeons clocked to the club to be verified, although I think that we are the only club in the Federation that still do this, things take a little longer in Gozo, for things to change. As there is no velocity to calculate the results are worked that same night. The Federation results are published, a couple of weeks later.

Every club awards trophies for the first 8 pigeons, as well as points, (in my club points are awarded for the first 20% of the pigeons competing). Prize money is nominal and in my club, the 1 Euro pools can give the winner a 14 Euro bag of pigeon corn. The Malta Federation has 4 regions and trophies are awarded to the top ten places in each region, points are given to the top 150 places within the Federation and the club with the highest accumulated number of points is awarded the Champion club of Malta. At both club and Federation level, there are trophies for Best Fancier Short Distance, Best Fancier Long Distance and Best Fancier Overall Distance. These awards are also given to the Best Pigeon Short, Long and Overall Distance and each pigeon is awarded a coveted gold pigeon ring. Maltese fanciers race for the prestige of being a champion and competition is very strong. A club has to have a minimum of 30 members and if numbers drop then the club has to be disbanded and join the nearest club. I am a member of the Rabat Racing Pigeon Society in Gozo, which has 60 members and there is another club in Gozo, The Nadur Pigeon Club, which has 30 members, so nearly 100 members in an area of some 13.5 km by 7 km. Then there are 22 clubs in Malta, with some clubs boasting over 80 members.

I am from Cardiff, South Wales, UK and have visited and written loft reports for some of the top fanciers, for publication in the British Homing World. I have helped friends with training their racing pigeons and also visited many lofts in Belgium but find that racing in Malta is so very different.

It is true that I have only started to race pigeons myself since coming to live in Malta, but the knowledge of different racing systems used in the UK and the Continent, are not necessarily suited for use here. In Malta most of the pigeon lofts are located on the rooftop of the fanciers house, as the houses have flat roofs over here. However, this often means that space is limited, which results in smaller lofts and larger numbers of birds kept in a smaller area.

As the weather in Malta is mild then many lofts are quite open, but when we experience the strong winds and rain, this can result in health problems. The humidity in Malta is excessive and even inside my house, it can be well in excess of 90 humidity. As a result then medication is frequently used to combat this. I first came across the pigeon fly, in Malta and had never experienced this in the UK before. As the racing season starts in November and the pigeons will have fully moulted, by this time, then the darkness or light systems are not really applicable.

Due to limited space most fanciers race natural, so as to maximise the total number of pigeons kept. With Malta being a very small island, training is a major problem, with the maximum training over land of around 20 miles, depending upon which part of the island that you live. So basically this means that you have to rely upon loft training for creating and maintaining fitness, with most fanciers exercising their birds once a day. The pigeons then have to go to their first race, to Belvedere, some 155 km/90 miles and are, “thrown in at the deep end”, having to cross the 90km/60 mile stretch of sea. This problem, combined with possible bad weather, hunters/birds of prey in Italy, can and does result in heavy losses, meaning that some 50% of the birds are lost. If the pigeons miss, or overfly the tiny island of Malta then they can fly on to Tunis and would find it extremely difficult to return on a solo flight from there.

The Federation rules are that a pigeon must have flown from Belvedere to qualify for entry in a longer race i.e. Messina and so on. It can be soul destroying to lose an experienced winning pigeon, but this is common in Malta and if the birds are not in top condition, then it is not like the UK or the continent, where the birds return late and you can medicate, as appropriate. In Malta if the birds are not in top condition, then you will normally lose them. Top continental fanciers will lightly train their long distance pigeons, in the year of birth, race them lightly as yearlings, then fly them at the distance, as two year olds. Here the pigeons have to face that channel without any 90km training tosses, or 90km races overland, it is a hard task indeed. A typical Maltese racing pigeon, is a fast maturing, one day middle distance pigeon, normally small to medium in size. A fancier that has a good team performance, with several pigeons placed, means that he/she will pick up most points and it is the team performance that gives the fancier the highest reward, in aiming to achieve Best Fancier, Short, Long or Overall.

Being a member in a club of 60 members or more, if one can achieve this, it is certainly something to be proud of and indeed my own ambition is to have one of my pigeons win one of the coveted gold pigeon rings, for Best Bird Short,Long or Overall, now that would be a dream come true! .

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