Nowadays you hear quite a few comments around clubs about how hard it is to compete against the big team flyer, how the drag creates an unfair advantage for them. You can realise my excitement when I heard through the grapevine of a small team man who was taking on the big guys and beating them. It was this that led me to collect Phil Boden from his Frome house and then take the drive over to meet Andy Shields who fly’s in the Paulton club, members of the West of England Combine. As you probably know there are some great fanciers flying in the combine, I cannot mention them all, but the likes of Geoff and Catherine Cooper, David and John Staddon, Stuart Wilcox along with Rob Brooks and the list would go on and on.
So with my interest piqued I was really looking forward to this visit, in fact I was like a kid for a week waiting for it.
We arrived at Andy’s and went in for a cup of tea and just started to chat pigeons, and at such a pace that I had to ask Andy to wait and let me get my notebook and start writing, you could tell straight away how passionate he was about his birds, his methods and all the people who have helped him along the way and helped him reach the heights that he has in the short time he has been racing.
In 2016 Andy purchased 8 youngsters from Dave Atkin, Lincoln, and these were the birds that started him on the course that he is on to the present time. Dave has put together a formidable stud of pigeons that has a Janssen base but is from various successful racing lofts. He has acquired top bloodlines from Leo Heremans, the best of Syndicate Lofts, Wall Lunt and Curtis including pigeons directly out of the Box 9 pair, Crehan and O’Connor which has added the Harry blood from Jan Hooymans to the mix. Formidable lines that are now being blended together with Dave adding that any new pigeons introduced have to breed the goods otherwise they are out, no matter the cost. These initial youngsters were all put on the road and resulted in the winning of 8 first prizes in their first year. The ball was rolling.
The following years have seen the results keep coming, 2017 10 first prizes were won, 2018 it was10 again and this past season 11 first were taken. As I said at the beginning we are talking about a small team man here, for instance in 2019 he started the year with just 21 racers and finished the old bird season with 18 left. One thing that I noticed whilst looking through the result sheets was that one of the birds lost was a blue cock bird number 775, and this was after the birds had taken a 1st, a 2nd and a 3rd in the club flying against an average of just over 200 pigeons each week. Going forward to 2020 Andy is planning to have a team of 16 cock birds and 14 hens to race, this will be his largest team ever, and as is his normal he hopes to have a young bird team of 30, these will be flown on the darkness.
Andy is a strict disciplinarian and believes in routine all the way through the year. Once racing is finished the birds are fed on Versele Laga Moulting Supreme twice a day at the same time, a spoonful per pigeon per feed. Once the moult is completed the birds are then put onto Versele Laga All Round. When the colder weather hits the birds are given the benefit of an extra mid day feed, again a spoonful each. Around the Blackpool Show weekend the birds are paired and then the food is changed to Versele Laga Breed and Wean and they stay on this until two weeks before racing, which is also when training starts. The weaned off youngsters are also fed exactly the same. The final piece of the feed jigsaw is as soon as training starts all of the pigeons are fed on a 50/50 mix of Versele Laga Gerry Plus mixed with Super Star. It does not take a genius to notice that the feed is Versele Laga all year. Also the amount fed to each bird is the same all year, young and old.
The health regime is based on a natural ethic with any extras added on the feed and not put in the water. In January the serious year starts with droppings from each pigeon sent off for analysis, this is done every three or four weeks and are only treated as per the recommendations, if they do not need anything then that is what they get. This then is the health portion apart from the compulsory PMV vaccination. As mentioned any extras that are given to the birds goes on the corn, and these include Gem Thepax, Cider Vinegar, Garlic Oil, Multi Vits and Sedochol. Grit and minerals are also put before them. As Andy says you can have a better control of the amount you administer to each bird when you put it on the corn, whereas if added to the water some pigeons will not like the taste and therefore not drink and take enough on board.
The system that Andy has is what he calls natural progression, a form of sorting the wheat from the chaff and survival of the fittest. After the January pairing from which the years babies are kept the pairs are left together. The race birds are allowed to make love matches, it is only the stock pairs that are selected. All through the year any eggs laid by the pairs are taken away after seven days, and this continues all year without compromise. Two weeks before the first race training is started, all of the birds are taken, regardless of weather conditions, to the same spot which is 10 miles away from home. The birds are learning to return as quickly as possible once they have been released after being sat for a while to allow them to acclimatise. If at any time through the season the team fail to return at a speed that is deemed good enough they are taken on a shock training toss. This time, again regardless of the weather conditions, the birds are taken to a spot that is 25 miles away from home but this time they are not allowed to rest at the release point, they are let go immediately on arrival at the release point. It is found that after this shock treatment that the team gets back on track and home faster on the next regular toss. Training continues all the way through the season on a Monday and a Wednesday.
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Through the racing period there is a strict control on the amount of feed that is given to the birds because it is feeding that gets you to the top of the tree. The only time that the water has anything added to it is when the birds are returning from the race. Then they are given Entrodex, a probiotic, and electrolytes as this is the time when you are putting the salts back into the birds ready for the next weeks race.
Andy’s Natural Progression method requires that you do not deviate from the game plan, you stay observant as the birds will always tell you what they need if you know what you are looking at. You cannot allow yourself to become complacent and you have to be tough and not keep birds just because they have a great pedigree, they have to perform. Observation is one of the most important things that a fancier can do. As mentioned at the start this is only a small team set up with just two 10 foot by 6 foot lofts and each containing 18 nest boxes. One loft is for the old bird team and one for the young bird team.
Andy Sheilds is adamant that he would not have achieved what he has without the help and support of a number of people and to this end he would like to personally thank Dave Atkin who has supplied him with every one of his winning pigeons, Victoria Beaton who is always on the end of the telephone should Andy ever need to talk to someone, wether it be about pigeons or any other subject. The relationship with Dave Atkin is such that when Andy retired his 9 times 1st winning hen he simply returned it to Dave from whence it came. It belongs there as he says.
All of the performances so far have come from club racing but Andy is now looking to demonstrate his teams ability on the bigger stage of National racing. The lines of pigeons that he has are families that should eat up the longer distances so all I will say is watch this space, Andy Sheilds is coming.