Gerard at his office where telephone, fax machine and e-mail are generating a constant flood of messages.
On a drab winter afternoon, I head for a village situated in Drenthe, within a stone’s throw of Nieuw Amsterdam: Ermerveen. This little town consists of exactly nine farms and it is on one of these farms that Gerard Koopman, who is our main character of today, is living. At the entrance of the farm the local residents have installed an enormous “Abraham” made out of straw; a rural tradition when someone reaches the age of fifty. And this is the birthday which was celebrated by Gerard Koopman a few days prior to my visit. The goal of this visit is to discuss some important aspects of pigeon sport with Gerard, who is one of the best worldwide experts on this matter. So this article is not list of super prizes and championships that are already known to everybody. This time, it is about how the master himself thinks about some essential issues.
Gerard Koopman, on the left: Kjeld Spithoven, standing beside the enormous “Abraham” made out of straw.
is, in the eyes of many, wrapped in a shroud of mysticism. The extraordinary results that this man was able to accomplish in both breeding top pigeons and excellent pigeon racing are probably sufficient to think about him in terms of a man with supernatural talents. But if you are acquainted with him, you know that nothing is further from the truth. The sober-minded resident of Drenthe says: ‘I sorely realize that a lot of people think that everything I touch turns to gold. Which is of course untrue. Out of twenty things that I do, a lot go wrong. I got some good virtues out of my education. From my mother I inherited a sports mentality, the true will to achieve good results, to win. From my father I got my sober-mindedness and the understanding that, in the end, you only have a chance of success if you have the best material at your disposal. As small entrepreneurs, my parents and I had to work hard to earn a living. You learn to deal with everything, which stimulates your perseverance in a particular positive way.
And naturally, I do have a certain talent for pigeon sport. But it’s difficult to put into words what that is exactly. During the long period that I was racing together with my father, I met great masters in pigeon sport such as Jules Rijckaert and Louis van Loon, who are men of pure practice from which I learnt a lot. The big breakthrough occurred in the nineties and after that, I decided to focus on pigeon sport. After my move to Ermerveen my parents stayed at the parental home in Nieuw Amsterdam. Father and mother, who both have reached a ripe old age, are still very sympathetic towards the ups and downs of our pigeons. I am leading a very busy life which is partly because of the many foreign obligations I have to meet. As from last year’s September I got some assistance from the 24-year-old Kjeld Spithoven from Schoonebeek who is helping me on a daily basis with looking after the pigeons.’
‘IT ALL STARTS WITH ……….
good pigeons’, says Gerard and he immediately adds: ‘I can’t help but noticing how easy people generally think about the main issue to get good results in this sport, namely: good pigeons. As if they can be obtained just like that. Most publications only talk about side issues but the important matters are left aside. I look at it this way: a top club such as Ajax is searching the world for good players but the physiotherapist comes from Amsterdam. I am continuously looking for better pigeons. And trust me: it’s not easy. During the past 25 years we have been able to form three top couples that have bred top pigeons during multiple generations.
• Main Couple 1. The cock was NL 78-1342748 and was bought from Mr Ahmeln in Nieuw-Dordrecht. This pigeon was the 3rd pigeon middle distance in WHZB as a yearling and had a lot of Janssen blood (i.e. Smeulders Bros.) running through his veins. The hen was ‘Gouden Duifje’, B 81-6116734, a direct from the Janssen Bros. in Arendonk. Mother of ‘Gouden Duifje’ was a half sister of the well-known ‘019’ of the Janssen Bros. ‘De Zitter’ and ‘De Beatrixdoffer’ are two of the most important sons of this main couple.
• Main Couple 2. The cock was B 84-6726519, ‘Raket 84’, directly from the Janssen Bros. in Arendonk. ‘Raket 84’ descends from ‘Jonge Raket van 76’ x ‘Blauw Witsnuitje’. The hen was B 85-6294112, a direct from Louis van Loon in Poppel. ‘De Eric’ and a couple of very good hens were the most important descendants from this couple.
• Main Couple 3. The cock was NL 92-5310320, ‘Gentil’. He descends from ‘De Eric’ x a daughter of ‘De Zitter’. The hen is B 96-6286060: ‘Golden Lady’. She descends from De Kannibaal x a sister of ‘Rambo’ (so cousin x aunt) and is a direct from Dirk van Dijck in Zandhoven. This couple did not only breed ‘Kleine Dirk’ but a whole series of extraordinary descendants, such as ‘Yi Min’ and ‘Judy’.
‘‘Zeno’, who is a son of ‘de Beatrixdoffer’, and ‘Gentil’, who was bred from ‘De Eric’ x a daughter of ‘De Zitter’, had an enormous part in the world championship which we achieved in 1994. ‘Yi Min’ and ‘Judy’ bred some of the present top pigeons such as ‘Amoré’ and ‘Ermerveens Hope’. At the moment, I’m thoroughly looking for a fourth main couple. And I’m looking all over the world. The last true top pigeon I bred is ‘Gerard’s Favorite’. This little golden nugget from 2003 has raced, amongst others, three absolute top prizes in the big region. Her father is ‘De Lorris’, a direct from G. and P. Lindelauf in Vijlen. ‘De Lorris’ is a brother of ‘Het Mirakel’, who is the best Sprint Racing Pigeon of the Netherlands with four first prizes. Mother from ‘Gerard’s Favorite’ is ‘Annelies’, the best racing sister of ‘Kleine Dirk’.
Our latest acquisition is ‘Jonge Sprint’ who has won five first prizes in 2004 and which we obtained from Albert Marcelis. This pigeon is the son of ‘Sprint’, who has won 22 first prizes and who was the best pigeon ever possessed by Albert Marcelis. I bought ‘Jonge Sprint’ at the total sale of Marcelis at the end of last year. I had never seen him but I had heard a lot about him. I was bidding on the phone and that’s how we were able to obtain him. He is now coupled with Judy, a sister of ‘Kleine Dirk’.
My breeding strategy is to breed with proven racing pigeons, who have been flying good top prizes if possible during several years, and who are part of a family of good racers. Inbreeding, I don’t know. What will couplings of cousin x niece do me good if I don’t know anything else about those pigeons.
At this moment, we have about 35-40 breeding couples, fifteen of which are living in separate boxes in the attic of my farm together with some nourishing couples. Ten breeding couples are located at my parents’ in Nieuw Amsterdam’.
A beautiful picture of Gerard Koopman together with the apple of his eye ‘Kleine Dirk’.
Gerard Koopman with his breeders in the attic of the farm.
SEE TO A LOFT WITH POSSIBILITIES
Also according to Gerard Koopman a good loft is one of the basic necessities to succeed in pigeon sport. ‘When building the new lofts in Ermerveen I was guided mainly by the lofts that I had seen at Jos Thoné’s place but also by my own insights. My large racing loft is fifteen metres by five and was built out of stone. In the front, I installed lofts for the total distance of the loft. Also in the front, the loft was split up into 6 divisions and the compartments were closed up to the ridge, to avoid draught. In front of the rooms where the pigeons live there is a large corridor. The loft was finished with new wood. The tile roof was isolated at the inside with a natural insulating material. As far as I’m concerned, placement of the loft to the south-southeast is ideal: thus, the sun is warming up the loft. A good loft is in my opinion a loft with a lot of possibilities. At the back there are a couple of attic windows in the roof with which I work a lot during the season. When it’s hot I open them during the day and I close them at night. To both sides of the large racing loft there’s a door with a window that can be opened. When the pigeons are training or when they are in the aviary I often open both of these windows thus allowing fresh air to enter the loft. This last idea came in fact from Louis van Loon. In the front there are the racing cocks and racing hens. In the back, the partners of the racing cocks are staying. The partners of the racing hens are situated in another loft. As you will know, I always keep the partners of the racing pigeons at home. During springtime, the ideal temperature in the loft is created by the sun and I try to keep this natural heat in the loft for as long as possible. My experience has learnt that this natural way of heating is the best way to get the pigeons into the right shape. I’m no supporter of stimulating their shape with loft heating. I do have heating in the loft but I hardly use it. Only a small spot of 20 by 20 centimetres is heated in every division. That’s where a mixture of minerals is placed.’
The backside of the racing loft. This is where the partners of the racing cocks are staying.
The racing loft with the aviary in the front.
‘THE STRESS IS ON MIDDLE AND ONE DAY LONG DISTANCE’ .......
says Gerard. ‘Because of the birds of prey my pigeons are flying insufficiently during fall and winter. It’s not possible for them to be ready as from the beginning (early March/early April). Besides, it’s often too cold during the pre-season. So I use speed races purely as training races. The widowers never get to see a hen the first four races. The racing hens are allowed to see their partner as from the first race. This measure is taken to prevent mutual coupling. Cocks aren’t allowed to see their hens before the important middle distance and one day long distance races. I’m willing to make an exception during the last one day long distance race of the season. I have a racing team of 45 cocks and 45 hens that are being raced weekly as much as possible. The partners of these pigeons always stay at home. In my opinion, it’s important that a pigeon who’s returning home gets to see its partner immediately. If you ask me, that’s the best motivation for the next race. Maybe it can work otherwise when you’re doing speed races but I’m no longer focussing on sprints. I stopped racing old pigeons on after season races as from 2002. I have been preparing my racing pigeons to the season in different ways. Coupling in January or February, let them grow youngsters or not, on eggs once or twice: everything has been tried and I didn’t notice any differences in the results of the pigeons. As far as I’m concerned, training of the old pigeons is hardly under discussion because early springtime is too cold and the pigeons are training close to home. Usually they get basketted for the first time upon the first speed race. The programme of our division is relatively short, so I’ve never encountered problems with moult by the end of the season. Because of this relatively short season I don’t see any reason to darken the old pigeons as is being done by many in this country.’
The loft with in the front the aviaries for the partners of the racing hens.
A FILLED FEED BOTHE MOST NATURAL WAY OF FEEDING...
When it comes down to feeding the pigeons, Gerard has a view of his own: ‘I’ve been an advocate of nourishing pigeons a filled feed box for many years. Simply because I think that a pigeon has to be given the opportunity to make up for him- or herself what he or she wants to eat. The pigeon knows what’s good for him (or her). And by feeding them like that, you’re also imitating the way of life in nature. Just like my racing cocks the racing hens receive a filled feeder every day. The feed is being changed twice a day. Each time about one third remains in the feed box and these “leftovers” are given to the widow hens and the youngsters. I use Beyers’s feed. When my pigeons are not training during winter in connection with birds of prey, I deviate from this way of feeding because I don’t want them to get fat. So I feed the pigeons winter carrots which they don’t like very much by the way but they have to eat them. In addition to the carrots they also receive a mixture consisting of 50% of barley and the usual feed. Thus, I keep my pigeons nicely on weight. Apart from the filled feed box during the racing season I’ve been giving my racing pigeons a mixture of grated cheese and grinded peanuts for 25 years. The last couple of years I’ve been adding sheep’s fat to that cheese and peanut mixture. To be perfectly clear: 60% of peanuts, 30% of cheese and 10% of sheep’s fat. This supplementary feeding is especially important to fill their need for animal protein. Furthermore, my pigeons regularly receive vitamins mixed with the feed. And of course they get fresh grit and minerals every day.’
GOOD, LONG-TERM TRAINING: A MUST ......
It is well-know that the pigeons in Ermerveen are not being let off lightly with respect to training schedules and racing games. Gerard Koopman explains: ‘In early springtime my pigeons are released for the first time that year and it’s a pretty exciting period, as well for me as for my pigeons. Each year, we have to deal with wing problems in a number of cases during this initial training period. This is probably due to the fact that the pigeons have been stuck in the lofts for such a long time and the birds of prey, which are extremely active during that time of the year, also have their share in these problems. We start with one training a day and when the weather gets warmer, I switch to two trainings a day. During the last seven weeks of the season (also the period in which all the NPO races take place) I train my pigeons three times a day. The schedule is as follows: in the morning from 06:00 until 07:00, in the afternoon from 17:00 until 18:00 and from 18:30 until 19:15. They really train like mad during that period. A must, because they are fed a substantial diet and they need the opportunity to combust. There are lots of prejudices in pigeon sport. Many fanciers don’t let their pigeons train on Sundays following a race because they believe that it wouldn’t help their shape. My experience has taught me that that’s all rubbish. The day following a race, I really like to see them go hard at it during training.’
MEDICAL SUPPORT, IT ALWAYS COMES UP ......
During the past few years, the wildest stories have been going around about what is or what is not the matter with Gerard’s pigeons. He was hurt a lot by these insinuations and imputations. ‘You have no way of defence against such accusations. And it just makes no sense at all. A good health is based on a good loft climate and good, complete nutrition. Occasionally, some health products are used and during the racing season the health schedules issued by specialised vets Norbert Peeters and Fernand Marien are being followed. We administer a cure against paramyxo out of precaution but most certainly not against parathyphoid fever. The preventative cure against paratyfus has been leading a bit of its own life these last couple of years. Many people truly believe in administering such a preventative cure, but I honestly wonder whether the pigeons actually benefit from it.’
This is how the racing pigeons are coupled.
A dormer window in every compartment of the racing loft.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE YOUNGSTERS ........
‘ Because of private circumstances I’ve been paying little attention to racing youngsters these last few years. If all goes well this year, I would like to take some more time to concentrate on that matter. We are breeding about 120 pigeons for personal use and they get darkened. Keeping the youngsters healthy is quite some business. We also had to deal with adeno-coli a couple of times. I like to train the youngsters a lot and thoroughly. If possible, I also race the after-training in Zwolle as well as in de Veluwe and if the opportunity presents itself I take them with me to Belgium if I have to be there. I think it’s important for them to gain as many experience as possible during their youth. Apart from that, the achievements of youngsters are pretty meaningless to me. They get their baptism of fire as a yearling. If they race a lot in the top they are allowed to winter.’
We tried to give you a look behind the scenes of the lofts of this man who is a Great Champion in truly many ways. For over thirty years races were played on a high level and one can surely say that this is in fact an Academy of Pigeon Racing. Which is also being noticed by the rest of the world: from all over the globe people appeal to Gerard’s pigeon knowledge and everyone is dying to get hold of a descendant from his impressive family of pigeons.
Despite all this attention, Gerard Koopman just remained himself: simple-hearted and level-headed, truly a nice man. Fact is that, if all is well in the years to come, this skilled and knowledgeable man from Drenthe will certainly be heard from again!!