TWO swans found dying beside a canal are believed to have been deliberately poisoned.

An investigation has been launched by the RSPCA after the birds were spotted close to death by people on the towpath in Church.

Several people tried to reach the swans after it was realised they had started to drift in and out of consciousness.

The birds, which have special royal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, were put down by a vet after being taken from the Leeds and Liverpool Canal by RSPCA workers.

The deaths have been branded as ‘despicable’ and ‘beyond belief’ by community leaders.

It is feared that food they had been given may have been poisioned, with reports that contaminated bread was found near by.

A spokeswoman for the RSPCA said: “A concerned dog walker called to report two adult swans that looked very lethargic near a canal at Peel Bank, Church.

“With the help of the member of the public, the swans, along with their cygnet, were collected by an RSPCA Animal Welfare Officer and taken to a local vet.

"Sadly the vet decided the two adult swans had no chance of survival as their condition had deteriorated and they were slipping in and out of consciousness.

“They were put to sleep, and the cygnet has been transferred to an RSPCA wildlife centre.

"Neither swan appeared to have any physical injury and one route the RSPCA is investigating is that the swans have been poisoned.

“We are extremely grateful to the walkerwho flagged this up to us.”

The dog walker said he came across the swans at around 5pm on Sunday.

He said: “I was walking my dog and there was a group of people, and I wondered what they were up to.

“I saw one girl cuddling a swan on the bank, and the other swan was in the water with its young one.”

The man called the charity initially believing the birds had been physically attacked.

After taking his dog home, he returned with his camera and took pictures of the swans, which he posted on the internet asking for help to find the culprits.

He wrote: “They were still just about living. Kids are looking after the swans the best they can for now.

“Sorry if this is a bit panicky but it’s a crying shame and darn right sick - whoever’s done it. I’m going back there now.”

When he returned to the canal bank, the birds had been taken by the RSPCA workers.

He said: “A woman who lives near me told me the RSPCA had taken some poisoned bread. She was heartbroken.

“It sounds deliberate.

“Recently there were reports of somebody was going around poisoning cats in the area too. It’s not just kids going out shooting at things - which obviously is wrong - but this is a bit more malicious.”

In March, at least four cats were reported to have been killed after drinking anti-freeze in Wordsworth Road, just over a mile away from where the swans were found.

Opposition leader at Hyndburn Council, Coun Peter Britcliffe, said: “You really do wonder what sort of despicable person would do this to animals.

“It’s beyond belief and incredible that somebody could get up to something like this. I’m sure everybody will be stunned by this.”

Hyndburn Council leader Miles Parkinson added: “It’s very sad. Swans are protected by royal warrant, and we have had other issues with them being shot at in the past.

“It’s very disappointing and something we will have to keep an eye on. People need to respect these beautiful birds that we are lucky to have in the borough.”

The RSPCA have appeal for anybody with information to call 0300 123 4999.