"THIS was the saddest, most traumatic nature sighting that I have ever been witness to."

These are the words of Dave Martin, Ilkley Angling Association Secretary, who saw a cygnet die in front of his eyes following a dog attack, which left two cygnets dead.

The incident happened in a pond at Ben Rhydding Gravel Pits Local Nature Reserve where signs clearly warn that dogs must be kept on leads and under control during nesting bird season. Volunteers who manage the reserve have also been left devastated by the incident.

Mr Martin said: "Lockdown has encouraged many people to enjoy nature and observe wildlife – and ironically given many of us more time and opportunity to do this. So a pair of swans nesting on a local pond owned by Ilkley Angling Association became a much-loved sight to walkers, who watched both parents devotedly guard the nest and hatch out six of their eight eggs.

"Swans mate for life and this pair has used the same site for the past few years. The small cygnets were ushered off to the river by the proud parents. Only a few days later, the adult swans had lost four of their offspring.

"They had relocated to what they presumably believed to be a safer haven – the roadside pond in the Nature Reserve at Ben Rhydding. The remaining two cygnets were still very small and fluffy and were watched over devotedly by the parents. The whole family had no fear of people or dogs as they were so used to seeing them and being fed."

Mr Martin was at the roadside pond doing fishery maintenance work on Wednesday, June 17 when the incident occurred.

“When I arrived I was greeted by four happy swans - mother, father and two happy healthy cygnets," he said. "I saw them a few times over the next hour and they were swimming on the pond quite safely.

"I felt better knowing that they were there and not on the river, where they had already lost four of their cygnets. The last two were clearly precious to them.”

As Mr Martin was packing up to go home, he heard a splash and a moment later spotted a wet dog with its owners on the footpath. He rushed to where he had seen the swans and was horrified to find the parents standing over a dead cygnet and another which was only just alive, and died as he watched.

“I was distraught,” he said. “I had seen the swans return to the same nesting site for several years and hatch their cygnets. It was heartbreaking seeing them watch their last two cygnets die in front of their eyes.”

The pond where the incident occurred is on the nature reserve managed by the Wharfedale Naturalists, which welcomes the public. The one where the swans originally nested and hatched their brood is on private land owned by Ilkley Angling Association and not accessed by any public right of way.

Steve Fairbourn, Ilkley Angling Association President, said: “We have hitherto tolerated unauthorised access, despite ongoing vandalism, theft, damage and litter. The swans have nested on our land for some years and we did our best to ensure they were not approached, but people did approach them when we were not around to prevent it.

"They became used to humans and dogs and had lost their natural fear. Consequently they did not attack when threatened. Wildlife should be left alone and even a dog that is simply curious but uncontrolled may still cause fatal trauma to a vulnerable creature.”

Steve Parkes is a trustee of Wharfedale Naturalists Society and the volunteer de facto manager of the nature reserve, on behalf of the site’s owners Bradford Council.

He said: “We were very saddened to hear about the loss of the last two cygnets and the distress caused to the parent birds, David Martin, who witnessed it, the Wharfedale Naturalist Society volunteers who work so hard to make the reserve an attractive location for wildlife, and those many members of the public who enjoy observing the reserve’s wildlife.

“The site has always been a popular spot for dog walkers and for the large part we have had few problems. We have clear signs up asking owners to keep their dogs under control and on a lead for the protection of nesting birds. We have not heard from the dog’s owner as to why their dog was running off its lead, but these are the tragic consequences.

“We do hope the swans will breed again next year and if they move onto the reserve we will put additional signs up to warn the public of the additional risk to swans. Going forward, we are considering a complete ban of dogs off leads and not just during the nesting bird season for the benefit of wildlife and all visitors.

"The reserve has become increasingly popular with people with limited mobility and the last thing we want to do is have someone having a fall trying to avoid a dog off its lead.

"We are also encouraging more young families with the construction of a new nature trail so believe they will also appreciate this change.”