On building a dynasty : A loft profile on John Wills - Frimley, Surrey (UK) and his family of long distance racers.

Most modern day fanciers are quite content to breed, feed and race pigeons on a short term basis, with no thought to putting down roots, and building a family of winning pigeons that can stand the test of time.

However, there are still a number of top class fanciers who, when selecting their initial stock, were conscious that the job in hand would be a long term project and set out with the objective to build for the future. Fanciers such as the late Peter Titmuss, Eric Cannon and Fear Brothers as well as the present day aces, Geoff Cooper, Brian Denney, Jim Donaldson and the Bush family spring easily to mind as fanciers who set out with firm objectives. The above named, are all top class, highly successful long distance fanciers who  built their  success on the firm foundations of a strong family of related pigeons which have been consistently successful at the distance. John Wills, the subject of this article, can also be classed alongside the aforementioned aces, as he has developed a truly outstanding FAMILY of long distance racers which has been winning top prizes in hard long distance Classic and National races for more than three decades. This long term success can in turn, be traced back to pigeons that were winning long distance races at the turn of the 20th Century, and which formed the basis of the present day Wills family of pigeons.

    It could be said that John Wills was “weaned on pigeon milk” as he was racing pigeons into the London area with his father from the time he took his first steps, and for nearly sixty years he has continued to enjoy the sport of pigeon racing.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, the origins of the present day family of pigeons can be traced back more than 100 years to birds of the A.E. Sheppard strain which were winning long distance races from Lerwick and Thurso with the mighty London North Road Combine in the early part of the 20th Century. However, I think it would be true to say that one of the foundation stones of the present day Wills team was a red chequer cock bred in 1978. This pigeon, later named “Rollercoaster”, was to prove to be not only a terrific long distance racer, but also a prepotent breeder, as nearly all of John’s subsequent long distance winners after 1978, exhibit his genes in their make up. “Rollercoaster” won many prizes in difficult long distance races and amongst these was 1st Dax [only bird in race time] and 1st BICC Pau 565 miles. His direct progeny were none too clever as racers but as stock pigeons they all, almost without exception, produced top class long distance racers.  Rollercoaster was himself something of a hybrid as his father was bred from an Ian Benstead Cock of the old Sheppard strain, when crossed with a red Kirkpatrick hen that had won 47th Open NFC Pau for Mr Tyler of Swindon. This red cock was then mated to a Burgher x Backs hen to breed Rollercoaster.

 Now this is where John Wills was to prove to be inspired in the selection of his foundation stock, as he subsequently mated Rollercoaster to further introductions from Ian Benstead, thus strengthening the Sheppard influence in his “embryonic family”.
 Ian Benstead was a top class long distance racer who was also a race horse trainer. Amongst his horse racing clients was A.E.Sheppard whose family of racing pigeons had won 1st LNRC from Lerwick or Thurso on six occasions between 1930 and 1937. Ian was amongst the major purchasers at Sheppard’s entire clearance sale and these Sheppard pigeons were to prove invaluable in the continuing long distance successes of the Benstead and subsequently, the Wills lofts.
 John mated Rollercoaster with Benstead hens and also with hens bred down from his old “West London” family of pigeons which contained the bloodlines of “Butlers Hill Queen” who won 1st NFC San Sebastian; “PrioryPride” 1st LNRC Thurso 1947 and birds from Tubby Tate, George Lovell and Arthur White with some Slabbinck Cattrysse thrown into the melting pot for good measure. It should be noted that, for the most part, the old West London family was based on performance pigeons and not on pigeons with fancy sounding strain names generations removed from proven racers or breeders.
 The Benstead pigeons were however to prove to be the dominant influence in the further development of the Wills family as more introductions were made   from Ian Benstead right up to the time that Ian retired from the sport.

 Let me illustrate here the breeding methods used by John Wills and in particular the use he made of “Rollercoaster” in building his present day family. Initially, “Rollercoaster” was mated to his cousin that had won 4th & 7th Open Marseille. This mating produced a Red Chequer Cock named “Roller’s Legacy”. John mated “Roller’s Legacy” to his aunt to produce a mealy hen named “Violet Lady” who was to win 4th Open NFC Pau. The next mating saw Violet Lady mated to her own sire to breed red cock “Roller’s Image”. This cock was kept for stock and in his early nests bred “Gail Supreme” winner of 1st Open BICC Pau. John then mated a son of “Gail Supreme” with a grand daughter of “Gail Supreme” [uncle x niece mating] to breed “Del Boy” the 2009 winner of the London & South East Yearling Classic from Tours for John and the culmination of 30 years of line and inbreeding using proven racers or producers in each generation.
That then is a brief outline of the origins and structure of the present day family of pigeons raced by John Wills. I say family as they truly are a well defined family of birds that look and handle as one, being in genetic terms phenotypically identical – that is they all look alike and they all handle similarly. The cocks are just above medium sized with noble looking bold heads and extensive wattle development, superb feather quality and outstanding eyesign. The hens were just below medium sized with excellent eyesign and feather quality and both cocks and hens exhibited excellent skeletal structure – fine boned and as strong as spring steel with not a weak back in sight. Incidentally, some of the hens could quite easily be mistaken for cocks, as they too possessed bold heads and large wattles like the cocks. Another characteristic of the family was the wing structure, - when opening the wing it appeared as if the wing would extend forever with the last three flights long and narrow with large gaps between. Little wonder then with such impressive aerodynamic wings, that the Wills family can undertake long and arduous flights with seemingly little difficulty!

    John has produced this family by inbreeding to the best performance pigeons. He is particularly keen on mating his best hens to one of their best sons in order to fix the genes, the emphasis being on the word BEST as he does not believe in inbreeding for the sake of inbreeding, it must be for the purpose of strengthening and consolidating the family gene pool, based on racing or breeding capabilities. When introducing a cross into the family John immediately mates it to his best pigeons. He then keeps the offspring that most resembles his own family and pairs it to one of the best of the old family. The resultant offspring from this pairing, which is in reality ¾ old family and ¼ cross, is then tested on the road.

    It is often said that the mark of a truly great family of pigeons is not so much what they achieve in the hands of the founder but just as importantly what they win in other lofts. I can tell you that although John Wills is not commercially minded, the few pigeons that he has allowed to leave his lofts have done exceptionally well in those lofts fortunate to obtain the Wills strain as they are winning in long distance races for other fanciers, both pure and crossed.
    Once he has produced the raw materials to work on the road, John is not in too much of a hurry to get them to the far off distance race points. The Wills pigeons are rarely raced as young birds but hey are extensively trained. This begins with an initial 20 mile toss – single up! This is repeated a number of times before moving on to 40 and 50 miles where the process of singling or doubling up is repeated. John never releases his pigeons in large groups. Nor is he worried if the young birds make a mess of these early training tosses. All they have to do is get home and hopefully learn to become independent and rely on their own homing ability in the process. As yearlings they are usually expected to go out to 300 – 350 miles and in fact John has won the Saintes race at more than 350 miles with pigeons that were having the first race of their lives. Two year olds, if fit and well go to the NFC Pau / Tarbes race and as three year olds some may be ready to face the “acid test” of International racing out to Barcelona 700 miles. This schedule is not set in stone as John may adjust things as he sees fit, watching the birds and assessing their condition and form allied to their past experience.

An example of this softly, softly approach to racing his birds is John’s good hen “Gail’s Supreme” which won 1st BICC Pau ,565 miles, when having only the FIFTH race of her life. Ian Benstead regularly entered pigeons in International 600 mile races for their first ever encounter with the race basket and he rarely failed to clock them. The homing ability is so strongly bred into the family that they do not need to have seen every lamp post on the way home in the build up to their long distance tests. In order to emphasise this point I give you the example of Darren Roberts of Wrexham in North Wales, who in 2009, copied this preparatory schedule when sending six three year old latebreds of John Wills bloodlines, to Tarbes at 686 miles, for only the third race of their lives. Result six from six with three on the NFC result at 2nd,9th& 22nd ,section; 73rd ,216th & 483rd Open with more than 3,800 birds competing.

    John’s policy has been to retire his best racers to the stock loft once they have put up an outstanding performance such as winning the BICC in a long distance race. This has ensured that the family can be maintained as he is constantly breeding from top class performers in long distance races along with their parents and selected sons or daughters. This policy has brought unbroken success at the distance for the past thirty years. However, due to personal circumstances, John has not done a lot of racing in recent years and he is now in the process of rebuilding a team of two, three and four year olds so that he can hopefully compete at the extreme distance in the near future.
    As a result of this rebuilding process, John has extended his loft space and now has three lofts in the garden at the rear of his home. The main racing loft, to which all the main performers raced is, a three sectioned structure which faces north. This north facing aspect ensures that the internal environment is on the cool side at the beginning of the season, which is ideal for John’s pigeons as he doesn’t want the form to develop until late June when it will hopefully continue into through to early August when the main long distance classics are being flown. However skylights have been inserted on the southerly facing roof surface so that some sunlight can enter and warm up the floor area in front of the nest boxes. The other lofts are new additions that face south and house yearlings and some youngsters which will be brought on quietly in readiness for future International racing. The photographs that accompany this article will give the reader a good idea of the overall loft set up.

 When ready for the test, the team will be hopper fed on yearling tic beans. This high protein feed is supplemented with peanuts in the final days build up to basketting. John, rarely, if ever feeds maize or seed and is reluctant to treat for any of the main ailments. He only does so if a problem arises or if he thinks the birds are not quite firing on all cylinders. Although the birds do not see a great deal of the inside of a race basket they are extensively trained from points on the south coast of England in preparation for their long distance tests. They also enjoy an open loft as often as John can allow. This keeps them fresh and raring to go. As one top class Welsh long distance fancier once told me “pigeons are like boxers - they can only take so many hammerings and if they have to take one then it’s better that they do it when it matters, not in the preparation”.

Because of his concentration on long distance racing, John does not mate the birds early in the year, the time may vary and very often he is only weaning his first round of youngsters in late May. Everything is geared to attaining top form in late June, July and early August when he hopes to be entering his team in each individual pigeons’ favoured nest position, whether it be sitting eggs or feeding youngsters. John is not afraid to send his birds feeding squabs on soft food as he does not believe that this does them any harm whatsoever – quite the contrary in fact.

     That then is brief outline of the birds and methods of a master of long distance pigeon racing. With these simple, yet practical methods applied to his carefully developed family of long distance racers, John is one of only a handful of present day British fanciers to win consistently at the extreme distance. Between 1992 and 2000 only nineteen fanciers in the whole of the UK appeared on the results of the NFC Pau race each year – one of those nineteen was John Wills of Frimley. This success in the NFC Pau / Tarbes race has continued almost unabated right up to the present time. Added to these impressive NFC performances should be further top prizes with the London & South East Classic, including 1st in the Yearling Open and 2nd Open overall from Tours in 2009. As if this were not enough, the reader should be aware of the fact that John has six outright wins plus many more top ten finishes in BICC long distance races. Without doubt a CV of one of the best records of any fancier in England at the present time. Long may the success continue and my thanks go to you John for allowing me to visit and handle your magnificent family of long distance racing pigeons. Thanks also to Keith Mott and Brian Siggars for allowing the use of the pigeon portraits that accompany this report.