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Matt Rakes, National winner, talks to Pigeon King about his experiences on the Natural system.

This year (2003) was a bit different though, the whole approach changed as the NFC had moved their dates around and flew Saintes earlier in the program so after the now expected early prizes, this time 3rd and 7th Open National, this year presented me with the ability to reset the team and try for a second race. After a few weeks break the same team of 4 went back to CSCFC Bergerac where they were 1st and 2nd Section, 3rd and 4th Open Classic, racing was simple or so you would think.

The main thing I remember about that season wasn't the cocks winning top prizes every week but the pleasure I had from racing the hens. They had proved themselves every bit as good as the cocks every week, even to the point even I was having to scratch my head as to why most times I would get a hen before seeing a cock when I knew my cocks were on form.

​Hens always challenged me though, I could never pick which hen would be home first but I was always confident enough to put the clock in the hens loft which was in itself quite a compliment. This year though was different for the hens too. After Saintes I decided to pair the hens and send them to somewhere like Bordeaux with the British Barcelona Club. If memory serves me right I think I was 4th Section with a Mealy Pied Hen.

​What had been different now though was that I had taken my normal 2 weeks off from work and as always was worried that I would be in and out the lofts too much and unsettle the cocks and stop them resting, however having paired the hens up (to 6 old stock cocks) I was in and out the lofts all day, loving the close contact with the hens like I had never experienced before.  

A 'Natural' State of Mind

"When I look back at how I raced my fast pigeons I would never have given a second thought to racing anything other than widowhood. I was racing 16 cocks and 6 hens all on widowhood, racing from 50-450 miles and they were winning for fun. I went into the season focused solely on the NFC Saintes race (393 miles) like I had for just about every season.  

'National Treasure' Matt Rakes of Paulton, Bath

Young Bird race loft (above)

Champion Indy (below)

They were exercised at any time of day, tossed down the road wherever I went or whenever I went with the youngsters and I just remember enjoying such time with them, playing with them on their nests and seeing their characters change daily. There was no 'widowhood routine' which I always believed so essential.

The following season I just never enjoyed pigeons and despite winning the normal good prizes I lost focus on the Nationals and just sent in the clubs and when I didn't even enjoy the 1,2,3,4,5 Federation from Messac I knew the fire inside me had gone out. Later that year my life changed when our first child was born and I needed to get away from pigeons.

As time went by without pigeons I looked back at what I had achieved and I didn't think about having won sections or opens in Classic racing, or even winning the car in 1995 but I just remembered enjoying flying the hens from a nest for those few weeks, so when I met Ton Bollebakker and he spoke to me about how he raced flying only the natural system it gave me something to think about, and that was always going to be dangerous!

A lot of what Ton said to me just felt right for me, just focus on one race, the best race, and in his opinion there is nothing better than a maternal hen on a nest, personally I think he is right and perhaps that's why we 'clicked', but I never really understood what he meant about 'the art of flying natural' but I do now!

Racing a natural system is an art form, and to me perhaps the purest art form in the sport. We will all agree it is no longer fashionable but racing pigeons themselves have not evolved or genetically altered that much in the last 50 years. Yes feeding systems are so much better today and medication is better than ever, but surely that can work as well for natural as it can for widowhood, maybe even better as racing natural the birds have lower level of stress and keep generally healthier.

Natural is about learning what makes every bird 'click', it may be a nest position of eggs, youngsters or driving or maybe all of them! When you see what really motivates that individual you need to remember this and apply it to them when it matters. Racing like this was enjoyable to me as I could try to work out as yearlings what suited individual pigeons and then I had the power to harness when I was preparing them for Tarbes at 2 or 3 years old.

For me this was a real pleasure, treating pigeons as individuals not machines, understanding them out one by one and planning their whole season to get the best from them. When I look back to my widowhood days I often wonder if I did get the best from every pigeon or did I succeed with the pigeons who suited the system best? Now though I know that natural allowed me to get the best out of each individual pigeon which in turn allowed me to keep less pigeons and remain competitive. I am also convinced this was a major factor in hardly losing any birds from races.

After 10 years of racing natural I can honestly say its been the most enjoyable time I have ever had with pigeons. It gave me a challenge, it gave me close contact with my birds at any time day or night, allowed me to use less medication than ever and win everything I wanted to, whilst always fitting in with family life!

Yes I made a lot of mistakes along the way but I would do it again tomorrow. There is no way that racing sprint pigeons on widowhood could ever tempt me back to racing but the joy of breeding an pigeon that I can have such a close bond with, understand what makes it 'tick' and then seeing it come from 600 miles is something that will always hold great appeal."

Matt Rakes