BBC NEWS | Northern Ireland | Linda's flight of fancy


A racing pigeon from Belfast, blown off course across the North Sea, has returned home safe and sound after spending a year and winning the affections of the public in Norway. BBC Northern Ireland rural affairs correspondent Martin Cassidy reports...

Linda ended up in Norway

As dusk settles across the Belfast skyline, Joe Neeson whistles and calls down his racing pigeons.

Joe doesn't count - he doesn't need to. After years looking after his tiny loft in the yard behind his west Belfast home, he knows every bird by name.

So when Joe scanned the roof above the loft on the day of Linda's first race, he knew there was a bird missing.

The young pigeon had been released more than 300 miles away in Penzance.

And as darkness fell, Joe knew that Linda was not coming home.

Seven hundred miles away across the North Sea, Linda was beginning what would be a year-long adventure.

The band on the pigeon's leg held the key to her identity

No-one knows for sure how Linda arrived at the petrol refinery at Mongstad - one of Europe's biggest ports.

It seems likely though that the exhausted pigeon "jumped ship" in the fading light as she flew across the North Sea.

Refinery workers found her cowering under clothes lockers and took pity on the bird which seemed close to death.

A Norwegian television crew was at the refinery to record a wildlife film, and journalist Hans Gunnar Skarstein realised that the band on the pigeon's leg held the key to her identity.

Back in Belfast, Joe Neeson was delighted to receive a call from Hans telling him that Linda was safe, if very weak and somewhat traumatised by her Norwegian adventure.

So Linda was coming home - or so Joe and Hans thought. They had not reckoned though for European bureaucracy.

Joe Neeson was eventually reunited with the prized bird

It would in fact be a year before Jonathan Guy's veterinary staff at Belfast Port intervened to get Linda back home and arrange quarantine in Northern Ireland.

"Tests were taken from Linda and thankfully the results have come back negative for the two main diseases that we would be concerned about, avian influenza and Newcastle disease," said Jonathan.

Now reunited with Joe, Linda is back on familiar territory, darting across the roof tops of Ballymurphy.

But this is a different bird to the apprehensive little pigeon which set out on her ill-fated first race.

Thanks to journalist Hans, Linda's plucky story was brought to an admiring Norwegian public.

Linda's celebrity status has been built through newspaper articles and on Norwegian radio.

And back in Belfast, Linda's life is becoming a constant round of photo calls.

At one stage during the quarantine, officials were considering a stunt double to satisfy the media clamour for celebrity pigeon access.

Free now though to fulfil her own engagements, Linda has no time to pick up her racing career.

And given her sense of direction - it's maybe better that Linda remains a home bird from now on!

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