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. 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.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.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?
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Every week, Mr Means replaces these warnings posted along the river bank after they have been torn down.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.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.
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.