As civic projects go, using Lottery cash to restore walkways and bridle paths along the River Nene seems a decent enough way to spend charity money for the greater good.
Creating 50 miles of cycle routes, parkland and dozens of delightful picnic spots, the Millennium Green Wheel project–which runs through the Cambridgeshire market town of Peterborough–was designed to encourage families to make the most of living beside the river.
At a cost of £10million, it should be a delight. With recreated woodland and hedgerows alongside the water, the project was also intended to give a boost to wildlife in the area–a traditional mating place for Mute, Bewick and Whooper swans, which congregate in vast numbers as the Nene flows through Peterborough town.
With salmon and sea trout spotted in the river for the first time in decades, the regeneration work has also seen the Nene come alive with other aquatic life, ranging from fish such as pike, carp, tench and barbel, to water voles, snails and freshwater prawns.
But this week, with spring in the air and flowers in bloom on the banks, few local people were brave enough to venture for an evening stroll along this delightful waterway, following disturbing allegations that Eastern European immigrants are ‘plundering’ and ‘pillaging’ local wildlife.
For, according to a flurry of alarming reports, Eastern Europeans are stalking the creatures of the River Nene and, to the horror of local residents, are reputedly now targeting the city’s swans.
Rather than simply enjoying the spectacle of these majestic birds, it was claimed that immigrants see the swans as a rich source of food, and are trapping the birds, then roasting them on open fires along the river bank.
The Peterborough Evening Telegraph, which this week revealed details of the scandal, has been inundated with letters and emails since claiming that ‘legally-protected swans’ were being ‘butchered’ by immigrants who are ‘raping’ Peterborough’s waterways by snaring the birds then battering them to death with iron bars.
Of course, stories of immigrants killing and eating swans–once a treasonable offence punishable by hanging because all swans are Crown property and owned by the Queen–have emerged with increasing regularity since Britain’s borders were thrown open to Eastern Europe in 2004.
Equally regularly, of course, such claims have been dismissed as urban myths spread by opponents of immigration, fabricated as part of some sinister racist agenda.
Indeed, no less an authority than Professor Roy Greenslade, media commentator of the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, denounced one report in The Sun–headlined ‘Swan Bake’ and revealing how the Queen’s swans were being poached and barbecued by Eastern Europeans–as a cynical attempt ‘to inflame passions’ about immigration.
And, in truth, I was also deeply sceptical about these latest reports from Peterborough, believing there must be some other reason for the mysterious appearance of swan carcasses along the river–the work, perhaps, of foxes or some deadly swan blight?
But, I can report, the reality is even more disturbing than hitherto reported. Indeed, so bad is the situation that the people charged with protecting the river believe the situation is grave and acutely perilous for Peterborough’s swan population if the killing is not stopped.
For the first time, there’s irrefutable evidence that swans and vast quantities of fish are being killed by immigrants who have set up camp along the River Nene and are living off the land.
With more than 16,000 new Eastern European immigrants arriving in the past five years, those unable–or unwilling–to pay for accommodation in Peterborough have instead adopted the lifestyle of ancient hunter-gatherers, albeit with a penchant for vast amounts of strong Polish vodka and beer.
Living in crude shelters made of wood and plastic sheeting, scores of immigrants have taken up permanent residence all along the Nene.
Using crude snares and nets, the inhabitants are preying on swans, fish, rabbits, pigeons and even snails–all plundered from this expensively-restored habitat and cooked on open fires.
Indeed, at one camp I visited, hidden in bushes on the edge of a field 500 metres from the river and just a ten-minute-walk from the centre of Peterborough, it was abundantly clear that these people are dug in for a long stay.
This camp is also where three swan carcasses were recently found hanging from a tree branch beside a fire built around stones and other bricks which are used to balance heavy steel cooking pots.
Beside the cooking area was a living area–another wood and tarpaulin structure, with a table surrounded by boxes to sit on. Food such as sugar and bread hung in plastic bags from trees to prevent wild animals from eating them.
There was no one at home when I visited, but the camp was clearly still in use. As well as feathers and other bones around the fire, I found piles and piles of snail shells, which had been cooked and emptied of their contents.
A separate ‘bathroom area’ had been created ten metres away from the huts, where soap and toothpaste hung in bags from trees, along with a bucket used for washing.
The residents had even put down pieces of wood and cardboard to try to keep the mud off their feet following their morning ablutions. The camp was also littered with empty beer cans and vodka bottles.
Intriguingly, as well as all sorts of animal detritus, I also discovered one of the weapons of choice for capturing and killing swans. Propped against a tree was a thick, strong sea angling rod–built to take the strain of hauling big fish from the oceans.
According to walkers, river wardens and RSPCA officials, heavy treble-barbed hooks are attached to lines and cast out into the Nene using these sea rods and giant landing nets. The prize is not fish, but swans.
Out patrolling the river on Wednesday night, Jonathan Means, head bailiff for Peterborough and District Angling Club, points out where he caught one immigrant with a giant net trying to lure swans towards him with bread.
‘The guy was hiding behind a tree,’ says Mr Means. ‘First, he threw bread into the pool so that the swans would come towards him. Then he tried to catch them in his net. I couldn’t believe it. I started shouting and hollering at him and he ran away.’
A mild-mannered man, 44-year-old Mr Means has fished these waters since childhood, spending weekends and holidays on the bank, often only reluctantly packing up when night fell and he could not see to fish.
Giving his time for free as a volunteer, he has been a warden for the past ten years and knows the river and its wildlife well. Yet he no longer finds his patrols by the river relaxing.
Pointing out cooking fires used by immigrants to roast fish and fowl, not to mention piles of empty Polish beer cans, cigarette packets and liquor bottles, he shudders at the destruction along his beloved Nene.
‘These people have a total disregard for our wildlife and our country,’ he tells me quietly. ‘These people know exactly what they are doing. They are catching swans and decimating fish stocks.’
And much as Mr Means loves the river and believes it helps teach people about nature, he says he would not let his son fish here alone, as he did as a boy, because of the threat from these gangs of Eastern European poachers.
‘This park and river should be an absolute joy,’ he says, as night falls and gangs of Eastern immigrants carrying crates of cider decamp along the water. ‘But people are scared to come here.
‘I know of people who have fished here all their lives, who now will only come if they have friends with them for protection. Polish leaders say these people just need education–but that’s rubbish. People do not need to be educated to know they are breaking the law.’
Indeed, these poachers know enough about the law to destroy all signs warning–in several different languages–that illegal fishing and taking of wildlife will not be tolerated. Every week, Mr Means replaces these warnings posted along the river bank after they have been torn down.
Nor are these the poachers of lore, taking ‘one for the pot’. Last weekend, a gang of Polish men was caught using nets to try to empty a pool full of spawning fish. By killing females and young, they threaten the entire fish stock in the river.
‘People call this immigrant-bashing,’ says Mr Means. ‘It’s not. I’d be saying exactly the same if it was English people. But it’s not–it’s Eastern Europeans. They play it daft when I catch them with fish–but what can you do?’
As we are talking, Kathy Hornig, an animal welfare officer, is on a secret mission further downstream at a place called Black Bridge.
Here, another immigrant camp has been built amid high bushes near the river, and the occupants have been seen repeatedly taking swans from the water.
With the camp residents scattering as she approaches with other animal welfare officers, her mission is a success: she discovers the carcass of a mature, adult swan inside a plastic bag hanging from a tree branch by the camp.
Acutely conscious of the potential for tensions between locals and immigrants over the slaughter of British wildlife, the investigators removed the carcass of the dead swan for further tests to determine how it died.
‘We’ve been aware of this [killing swans] going on for some time,’ Ms Hornig said. ‘The people trying to catch swans are causing them extreme distress. But I cannot say with 100 per cent proof that the swan was killed for food, nor will I speculate about why it was here. I do not want to make any further comment.’
Marion Todd, a former Mayor of Peterborough, whose house is near the Nene, has spotted countless carcasses of birds, as well as bags full of fish, being carried by immigrants back to their camps.
‘I’ve absolutely no doubt that these swans are being killed for food. We cleared one overgrown area where camps have been built–and found lots of swan carcasses. Put it this way: the swans did not disappear and their bones were not found on fires before the immigrants came.’
And so the carcasses are piling up and the death toll is mounting. Officially, there have been six recent confirmed cases of swans being killed by immigrants to eat. But the true number is believed to be far higher.
Of course, it’s not just animals that are affected by this influx of immigrants. Few locals dare to use the park in the evening now, and even in daylight hours many will only use paths in sight of other people.
It was in 2004 that Labour threw open Britain’s borders to immigration from other EU states, prompting hundreds of impoverished Eastern Europeans to head to these shores.
With more than 60,000 other immigrants predicted to arrive in Cambridgeshire by 2016, the Polish Mission in Peterborough this week said that migrants should be educated, rather than punished, if they are caught poaching.
When approached by the Mail yesterday, the Polish Mission was unable to comment.
A spokesman for the Polish Embassy in London last night confirmed diplomats were aware of the swan killing allegations but questioned the scale of the problem.
‘How many Polish people are involved?’ he said. ‘Four or five. A minority. If somebody has broken the law by behaving in this bestial way, I’m sure they will be punished according to the British law. I’ve heard of four or five people being arrested. It creates the wrong picture to say that hordes of Polish people are taking British wildlife.’
At the camp where the latest dead swan was found this week, one immigrant from Lithuania had been left behind when her countrymen fled after the raid by animal welfare officers.
As rain lashed down, the woman, who stank of cheap cider and refused to give her name, peered out from beneath her tarpaulin-covered tent. She kept repeating ‘No understand–no passport’ when I asked her about the swan killed and prepared for the camp pot. ‘Please go,’ she said. ‘No say nothing. No trouble.’
Jonathan Means is unimpressed. ‘They know what they are doing is wrong–they just pretend they don’t if they get caught,’ he says.
‘Killing swans and fish has got nothing to do with lack of education. It’s to do with decency, manners and respect for the country you live in.’