These latest wins at International level came in the 2011 Bordeaux International race when Mark clocked three yearling hens to win 1st, 2nd, & 3rd International[Hens] 3,200 birds, as well as 1st, 2nd, 9th & 30th International [Yearlings]11,444 birds, plus 3rd Open [Old Birds]10,400 birds, and 2nd, 4th & 5th Open Overall from 22,029 birds. A brilliant team performance competing against Europe’s finest. In addition to this outstanding International performance there are more than a score of other top prizes at National level plus the winning of the Langstone Gold Cup with the NFC for the fourth time in recent years.
The Gold Cup is awarded to the fancier with the best overall average in all National Flying Club races each season. Mark has now won this trophy in the past two consecutive seasons and this in the NFC with a membership of 3,300 fanciers from all over the U.K. The 2011 season therefore constitutes what can only be described as the dream season. Put simply, Mark Gilbert wins races with monotonous regularity whether they be club races from 60 miles or National races at 570 miles – he is quite simply, the man with the “Midas Touch”.
So when did it all start and what makes this remarkable man “tick”? It could be said that it all began when a fifteen-year-old boy witnessed his single entry in the Pau National race dropping towards its home loft, after completing its 570 mile journey from Southern France, to eventually finish 233rd Open NFC. At that precise moment two things happened. The first saw the lad burst into tears with emotion, and the second was the genesis of his everlasting love affair with long distance classic racing.
Mark and Karen Gilbert with NFC trophies won in 2011
In the 30 or so years that have passed since that memorable Pau race, Mark’s passion for long distance pigeon racing has, if anything, grown rather than diminished. As mentioned above, in the intervening years many more races have been won by this extremely likeable 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, since 2003 the UK has produced no less than SEVEN International winners – fanciers whose birds have competed against and beaten the best in Europe and the Gilbert pigeons have now achieved this remarkable feat on three occasions!
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 plus 1st International Dax against more than 17,000 pigeons;1st NFC Pau / Saintes; 1st NFC Saintes;1st BICC Pau on two occasions; 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 ten years that Mark and his family have been at their present address in Winkfield, a village a few miles to the south west of the royal town of Windsor.
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 a 33ft brick built stock loft and a newly erected second 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 hens sections have grid floors to which a large number of small plastic balls have been added. These balls discourage the hens from going down onto the floor where they may start to form amorous relationships with other hens! The perches in the hens sections are also designed to discourage lesbian matings between the 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 saw the first attempt at racing a team of 32 hens on the roundabout system and these are 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 60 – 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. At the time of my visit to compile this report in early March, the roundabout team were putting in more than an hour’s voluntary exercise and were certainly going with a swing. 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 to three weeks rest from racing in the build up to their target race. Once the channel races arrive, the birds are raced on alternate weeks.
At the time of my recent visit the old bird race team was being fed on a mixture of 50% Barley and 50% Versele Laga Gerry Plus. Once racing gets underway, the widowers and young birds are fed the same mixture and 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. Mark firmly believes that for these “long haul flights” the birds must have sufficient fuel in the tank to complete the job.
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. As an example of this no-holds-barred attitude, I give you the case of the 2011 Saintes National winner- a yearling that also competed in the High Littleton Tours race at more than 300 miles as a young bird.