A loft report on Mark Gilbert


The amazing success story of possibly Britain's finest fancier continues unabated. The 2011 season must be ranked amongst the most successful ever for this quiet, unassuming yet outstandingly successful fancier. Not only did he win yet another National race, making it six in total, but he also won his second and third International races into the bargain. 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. takes some doing. 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.
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.

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 favour the use of supplements to help keep the birds in top racing condition and has in the past used multivitamins and various natural products to this ends. However he believes that if the corn fed is of top quality it should contain sufficient vitamins to satisfy the birds' needs and the Versele Laga Plus mixtures have proved to be very successful for the "Winkfield Wizard" to say the least!

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 in the stock loft, children of all the family's best performers in International races through to 650 miles. These include children of Emiel, Ted, Iban etc and all have produced the goods at Southfield.

A second family was introduced by Mark in the late 1990's with a view to competing at sprint /middle distance racing. These were the Van Elsakers and they certainly repaid Mark's confidence in them as it was this family that produced Mark's first International winner "Southfield Supreme", in 2004 from Dax plus scores of club and Federation winners. They are mainly blues and beautifully balanced pigeons with pronounced pectoral muscles and predominantly pearl eyes. "Southfield Supreme" has now become the mainstay of the stock loft as he is directly responsible for birds to win 3rd & 4th Open National against 5,000 birds as well as being grand sire to 8th & 9th Open Saintes in 2011 . Mark's first two birds in the 2011 Tarbes National at 570 miles winning 2nd & 14th Open NFC are also grand children of this prepotent champion.
At the time of my initial visit to Southfield in 2009 the above two families made up the bulk of the Gilbert stock with a number of additions, such as some terrific descendents of " Invincible Spirit" which produced 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 imported a number of late breds from the German multi International winner Hans Peter Brockamp. These were all direct children of the Brockamp International winners. At the time of my first visit in late 2009 I wrote the following "the Brockamps 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." Well I did not have a "crystal ball" with me at the time but those words have proved to be just about spot on, as the results achieved by these Brockamps at National and International level over the past three seasons have been nothing short of phenomenal. Since that initial draft of birds were introduced from the German ace, many more birds have been purchased at great expense and Mark now has six direct children of Euro Diamond plus children of "George" the sire of Euro Diamond as well as offspring from Mistral and most of the other Brockamp International winners. They are a lovely type of bird as they are just on medium sized ,shallow keeled and give the impression that they would be very easy to condition as they do not carry any excess weight but are nevertheless, well muscled. The first cross of these Brockamps with the children of Southfield Supreme has produced a "golden seam" of winning pigeons. It is this line of breeding that Mark has chosen to follow as he has concentrated his pairings around sons and daughters of Southfield Supreme with sons and daughters of the various children of Brockamp's International winners thus strengthening the gene pool to the nth degree.

Further introductions have been made from some of the best sprint /middle distance lofts in Europe such as Koopman, Van denabeele, and the German sprint/middle distance sensation Andreas Drapa. Mark has also gone to Syndicate lofts based in North Wales and has bought pigeons direct from their top breeders such as "Drum" and "Gerrie" etc.
With his eyes set on winning the Barcelona race at close on 700 miles, a draft of pigeons has been brought in from the Barcelona National winning loft of Rutz and son of Germany plus some birds from the excellent Belgian long distance fancier Etienne Meirlaen . The Rutz pigeons were extremely small dark chequers with some of the hens being no bigger than starlings, yet they compete successfully from Barcelona into Germany and reminded me very much of the old Southwells.
Direct children of all the top pigeons from the loft of Brian Denney have also found their way into the stock loft at Southfield and these include a number of children of "Tuff Nut" and "Dark Dancer".

All of the above introductions are, as you would expect given Mark's ability as a fancier, exceptional specimens bred direct from the champion pigeons in each of these fancier's lofts. No expense has been spared in acquiring these birds and I can tell you that many thousands of pounds have been spent to ensure that only the very best bred from the very best have come to Southfield. Once at Southfield, Mark wastes no time in putting them to the test - they have to perform on the road or in the stock loft or out they go, no matter how well bred they are or how much they have cost.

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 the 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. Incidentally the old red cock Southfield Pau is still with Mark at eleven years old and still handles like a two year old. Although Mark is not easily given to sentimentality he ensures that his old stagers are given a perch for life when their racing or breeding duties are over.
The major winners from the 2011 National and International winning season have now been placed in the stock loft to hopefully breed the next generation of National and International winners. During my visit I handled the blue pied hen that won 1st section 2nd Open NFC Tarbes in 2011. She was a fairly long cast hen bred from a double grandson of Invincible Spirit when mated to a daughter of Southfield Supreme the Dax International winner.
The winner of the Yearling International from Bordeaux was a lovely blue hen bred from a son of Brockamp's Minstral when paired to a direct daughter of Brockamp's Euro Diamond. Second International Yearlings was a dark chequer hen bred from a son of Geoff Cooper's Champion George when mated to a niece of Champion Best. The winner of 3rd International Old birds had previously finished at 8th Open National Saintes in 2010 and is bred from a son of Drum and Gerrie when paired to a direct daughter of Southfield Supreme.
The NFC Saintes winner also came to hand and he proved to be a small to medium sized light chequer cock and is bred in the purple as his father is a son of Syndicate Loft's "Drum" and "Gerrie". Drum is a full brother to Reza and Dutch Master whilst Gerrie is a daughter of Kleine Dirk of Koopman. The dam of the Saintes National winner is a direct daughter of Marcel Sangers' "Laser Gun". In marked contrast to the National winner, the second in the clock taking 2nd Open National was a much bigger pigeon with a magnificent bold head even though he too was only a yearling. This cock that actually arrived with the National winner, is also bred from a son of Dutch Master when mated to a direct Gaby Vandenabeele hen bred from "Golden Gaby" and "Band of Gold". Third bird in the clock from the Saintes National winning 4th Open National was yet another Vandenabeele bred from a son of "Golden Gaby" with a daughter of Vandenabeele's "Lover Boy". In this NFC Saintes race, Mark clocked thirteen birds to finish in the first twenty six of the Open National result and that is some flying at a distance of 400 miles.

RESULTS for the Dream Season 2011.
International Races.
1st,2nd,9th & 30th Open Yearlings International Bordeaux 11,444 birds.
1st, 2nd &3rd Hens International Bordeaux 3,200 birds.
3rd Open International Old Birds Bordeaux 10,400 birds.
2nd,4th & 5th Open International overall 22,029 birds.
National Races.
Messac: 15th Open 5,766 birds.
Nantes: 1st &4th section 15th & 21st Open 8,745 birds.
Tarbes: 1st, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, 10th & 11th section; 2nd, 14th, 20th, 38th, 44th, 56th & 57th
Open 3,290 birds.
Saintes: 1st , 2nd, 4th, 9th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 18th, 21st, 24th & 26th Open 4,128 birds.
Fougeres YB's : 3rd &4th Open 4,776 birds.
Fougeres Old Hens: 1st section 4th Open 984 birds.

In the six races organised by the National Flying Club in 2011 the Gilbert loft finished in pole position i.e. 1st section on four occasions and this in the largest section in the organisation with birdages of between 800 - 2,000 birds. This is yet another record achieved by Mark Gilbert and his pigeons.

You can also add to the above, numerous club and Federation wins plus wins in local Open races to make up an incredible season's racing from 60 to 570 miles.
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 both the BICC and NFC giving his time freely in an effort to put something back into the sport in which he has gained so much success. I am sure his pragmatism and business sense will be of great service to both of these organisations.

There you have it then, Mark Gilbert an internationally renowned fancier and all round good guy. Keep up the good work Mark.

Gareth Watkins