When a fifteen year old boy witnessed his single entry to the Pau National dropping towards its home loft, after completing its 560 mile journey from Southern France, to eventually finish 233rd Open NFC, two things happened. The first saw the lad burst into tears with emotion, and the second was his everlasting love affair with long distance classic racing.
The fifteen year old in question was none other than Mark Gilbert of Winkfield near Windsor in Berkshire and in the 30 years that have passed since that memorable Pau race Mark’s passion for long distance pigeon racing has, if anything, grown rather than diminished. In the intervening years many more races have been won by this likeable forty five year old businessman, but none can surpass the pride and joy that Mark felt on that evening many years ago.
Until the year 2003 many great British fanciers had attempted to win an International race competing against the cream of European fanciers, but to no avail. However in that year, the great West Country pigeon fancier, Brian Sheppard of Trowbridge , achieved what was previously thought to be the impossible when he clocked his two year old widower on the day at 501 miles in the Dax International to win 1st NFC and 1st International Dax with 19,000 pigeons competing. A brilliant, never to be repeated performance most thought - WRONG. The very next year up comes Mark Gilbert to win 1st NFC and 1st International Dax, with once again more than 17,000 pigeons competing in a race which saw Brian Sheppard close behind at 2nd Open NFC and International with a half brother to the previous year’s International winner. Also in this 2004 Dax International race, Dave Posey of Oxfordshire clocked his great Dordin hen to win 1st in the hens International, making it a clean sweep for British fanciers.
Mark Gilbert and Brian Sheppard are still the only British [English] fanciers to have won an International race but who knows – this could soon change with the NFC’s recent decision to give its members the opportunity to compete in the Tarbes International in 2010.
As I mentioned earlier, Mark Gilbert has been fortunate enough to win many races since his initial success and amongst these classic wins are 1st NFC Pau / Saintes; 1st BICC Pau; 1st BBC Messac 1st London & South East Classic Bergerac and 1st Classic Guernsey. Add to these performances, scores of club, Federation and Open race wins, and you have the CV of one of the most successful fanciers in England at the present time. Most of the aforementioned performances have been achieved in the seven years that Mark and his family have been at their present address in Winkfield.
The grass is certainly not allowed to grow under the feet of this man as the range of lofts that have developed in this short time are nothing short of spectacular. Facing south east and measuring in total 140ft in length, with an additional 33ft brick built stock loft, they are a far cry from Mark’s original boyhood loft which was a 6ft x 6ft builder’s shed. The photographs that accompany this article will, I hope show, how impressive these Petron built lofts are. Each loft is 10 ft wide and has a 4ft wide corridor along the front allowing access to each section. The 72ft widowhood loft has eight sections that house the 86 strong team of widowers in six sections with a further two sections to house the widowers’ hens. The young bird loft, which stands immediately adjacent to the widowhood loft, measures 40 ft x 10 ft and has four sections which houses the 160 strong young bird team. The 2010 season will see 32 hens raced on roundabout system for the first time and these will be housed in a 27ft loft with two sections plus a central corn store. All lofts have grid flooring and automatically cleaned nest boxes so the time spent on day to day loft management is reduced considerably, which must be a godsend to Mark’s father Geoff, who comes around daily to see that the birds’ every needs are catered for.
Mark’s father, Geoff, is a successful fancier in his own right and, along with Geoff Cooper of Peasedown St John near Bath, has been one of the major influences on Mark’s development as a top class pigeon fancier.
Management at the Southfield lofts is kept as simple as possible with very little frills attached. Once the moult is completed the birds are gradually brought up in readiness for mating. This takes place in early December for the stock birds with the widowhood cocks mated in early February. All the racers, whether they are sprint, middle distance or long distance are mated at the same time. Once their domestic duties have been completed the widowers are gradually eased into their daily home exercise regime and when Mark thinks that they are ready they are then given just two 15 mile training tosses prior to the first race which is usually at 80 – 100 miles. On each of these training tosses, the hens are in the boxes awaiting the returning widowers. The training basket is rarely used thereafter as the widowers are kept up to the mark with two one hour exercise sessions each day. The cocks are locked out of the loft during these periods and exercise freely as Mark rarely has to resort to the flag. Nothing much changes for the remainder of the old bird programme, except that Mark likes the widowers destined for the long distance classics to have two weeks rest from racing in the build up to their target race. Once the channel races arrive the birds are raced on alternate weeks.
The widowers and young birds are fed the same mixture when racing, this is Versele Laga Superstar Plus with 10% barley added. They are communally fed to appetite after each exercise period and the feeding stops once the birds start to leave the barley. The widowers are fed peanuts and seeds in addition to their normal mixture, in the final days of preparation for the long distance races.
The young bird team is raced on the darkness system and are extensively trained in preparation for the young bird programme. Once racing begins they usually get two tosses each week from 35 – 40 miles in addition to their twice daily exercise. On talking to Mark I had the impression that he is hard but fair with his youngsters and if fit and well they are expected to complete the programme including a number of sorties across the channel from Northern France.
The medication programme employed here is minimal. Stock birds and racers are treated for canker before mating and the racers get a further three day treatment for canker before going to their designated long distance race. Mark does not favour the use of supplements but has in the past used multivitamins. However he now feels that if the corn fed is of top quality it should contain sufficient vitamins to satisfy the birds’ needs.
This pragmatic approach is mirrored in Mark’s attitude to the handling characteristics of pigeons. As he said, he would rather have a winner that handled badly than a bad pigeon that handled like a dream! Having written this I can state that some of Mark’s best pigeons were on the large side of massive with some of the hens on the other hand being quite small and petite. This was particularly apparent in the Deweerdt family that Mark has raced with great success, both inland and overseas through to Pau and Tarbes. The cock birds in this family tended to be generally on the large side, mostly chequers, dark chequers with a few reds. They had excellent feather quality and good strong eye colouration. Mark went direct to the fountainhead to purchase these Deweerdts and has children of all the family’s best performers in International races through to 650 miles in the stock loft. These include children of Emiel, Ted, Iban etc and all are producing the goods at Southfield.
A second family introduced by Mark are the VanElsakers and these are the pigeons that excel for Mark in the sprint and middle distance races. They were mainly blues and beautifully balanced pigeons with pronounced pectoral muscles and predominantly pearl eyes. It was a Van Elsaker widower, “Southfield Supreme”, that was to win 1st International Dax for Mark, proving that they can stay the course as well as sprint.
The above two families make up the bulk of the Gilbert stock with a number of additions, such as some terrific descendents of “ Invincible Spirit” which are producing excellent all round racers when crossed with the Deweerdts .
Nevertheless, Mark is always on the look out for something exceptional that will give his racing performances an extra boost, and with his growing interest in International racing in mind, he has recently imported a number of late breds from German multi International winner Hans Peter Brockamp. These are all direct children of the Brockamp International winners and were very young but still old enough to show their class. I believe that they will be a useful addition to the Gilbert team both pure and when crossed with the ever dependable Deweerdts.
Mark’s breeding policy is to outcross for racing and inbreed to strengthen the family bloodlines for the stock loft. This breeding plan is based on the fact that only birds from proven National or International performers have been introduced over the past years irrespective of their family or loft of origin. The only thing that counts at Southfield lofts is PERFORMANCE.
To illustrate this point I give you the case of one of Mark’s best Deweerdt stock cocks, bought from the Deweerdt family as a six year old. In two season’s breeding at Southfield he sired Red Cock “ Southfield Pau” 1st BICC Pau; “Southfield Nightflight”1st NFC Pau/ Saintes and “ Southfield Darkie” 1st BBC Messac and as Mark said he was one of the most non descript weedy little things you could imagine. He was however, apart from being a super stud cock, a full brother to the Deweerdt’s “Raldo” winner of 4th International Perpignan. He was mated to an Eric Cannon hen, a daughter of “Culmer Bess” to breed Southfield Pau and Southfield Nightflight. When mated to a daughter of “Emiel”, a winner of 1st International for the Deweerdts he sired Southfield Darkie.
I cannot close this report without mentioning another top performer at Southfield – Chequer cock “Southfield Treble” who won when racing the following prizes in long distance classic races:-21st BICC Pau;34th NFC Dax and 5th BICC Perpignan International all in the same season! The next year Treble went on to win 8th London & Se Classic Bergerac 1st Greater Distance Club and 12th Open BBC Palamos.
In finishing this article I should also mention that Mark’s generosity in donating pigeons to many causes is well known and many organisations throughout the U.K. have benefited financially from Mark’s gifts. He is also a committee member of the NFC and I am sure his pragmatism and business sense will be of great service to this respected and worthy institution, and any other organisation to which he might turn to serve.
There you have it then, Mark Gilbert an internationally reknowned fancier and all round good guy.
Keep up the good work Mark.