A PIGEON fancier turned detective to track down his prize-winning birds - and found them in a freezer.

Ian Cadman was distraught to find 49 stock and racing pigeons had been stolen from his cree at the Sugar Hill allotments in Cockerton, Darlington, in July, a court heard yesterday.

The pigeons, worth about £3,500, had been given to Mr Cadman and his 16-year-old son David by his father Stan.

Two other crees were also raided on about the same date - Neil Turner having eight birds stolen and William Hayman losing ten pigeons.

Mr Cadman, 31, had been alerted to the theft by a taxi driver, who had taken a man carrying live pigeons in a wicker basket, and had dropped him off at Elmfield Terrace, Darlington.

Police called at the address, but the couple living there denied having the pigeons.

Determined to find out the truth, Mr Cadman and his father went round to the house and made an horrific discovery in the back lane - pigeon body parts in a bloodied bin liner.

Police went back to the house and found pigeon meat in the couple's freezer. Suratun Nessa Khatun, 33, pleaded guilty to three charges of handling stolen goods at Newton Aycliffe Magistrates' Court. Her 34-year-old husband, Faruk Miah, admitted assisting her.

The court heard that Mrs Khatun had agreed to buy 40 pigeons, but only 14 arrived and these were killed and placed in the freezer. The meat had been prepared for consumption.

The couple, who have six children, were both given a 12-month conditional discharge. Mrs Khatun was ordered to pay Mr Cadman £100 compensation, £75 to Mr Turner and £50 to Mr Hayman.

After yesterday's hearing, Mr Cadman said: "My father found a bin bag with feathers and blood stuck to the side and when he opened it, it was full of pigeon heads and legs."

Mr Cadman was able to identify the birds as his by the metal rings round their legs.

He added: "My dad was crying, he was that upset, and I just felt like being sick because of all the time I'd put into them."

His father Stan added: "It was a lifetime's work for me and it broke my heart - I cried my eyes out."

Mr Cadman said he was disappointed at the sentence, but thanked fellow pigeon fanciers for helping him get started again