A POPULAR north Cumbrian farmer who vanished just over a year ago has been declared dead by a coroner.

Despite extensive efforts to find 69-year-old Glasson pensioner Albert Birkett, which included using helicopters, police dogs, drones, an underwater search team, and dozens of volunteers, no trace of him has ever been found.

His disappearance is a mystery, but a coroner has now ruled that the most likely explanation is that Mr Birkett suffered a medical episode or accident while out shooting.

An hour-long inquest in Carlisle heard a detailed description of the circumstances surrounding the tragedy.

Detective Inspector Martin Hodgson said Mr Birkett’s disappearance had been taken extremely seriously by Cumbria police, with wide-ranging efforts made to find him.

A professional farmer and countryman, Mr Birkett was last seen outside his home in Glasson, near Port Carlisle, on January 1, 2019.

The officer said: “We ran a media campaign, appealing for sightings and information; searched areas of interest… using helicopters, dogs, underwater search teams.”

There was absolutely no indication Mr Birkett was still alive. “No trace of him has been found, in spite of those extensive searches and efforts,” said the officer.

“As a result, Mr Birkett is believed by the police and by his family to be dead.”

The inquest heard how on New Year’s Day Mr Birkett had gone to a family gathering with his sister Mabel Taylor in Carlisle, driving there in his black hire car and then leaving at about 5.30pm.

A neighbour later saw him walking to his milking parlour and, between 6.30pm and 7.30pm that same evening, while another villager saw Mr Birkett out looking for his dog.

That neighbour was Hannah Carruthers. In her statement, she recalled hearing a dog barking outside her home and then going outside to check.

“I saw Albert’s dog on the doorstep,” she said. “It was not unusual as it often wandered off. We put a lead on [it] and headed off through the village to Albert’s farm. We saw Albert at the end of our drive. It was clear he was out looking for his dog. We chatted for 15 minutes.”

He was his normal self and spoke of heading back home to make his dinner. Mr Birkett’s disappearance was discovered the following morning.

Neighbours became concerned that his dog had not been let out and fed; and that his curtains were still closed.

Mr Birkett’s door was unlocked and one of his guns – a .22 rifle – was missing. His friend Richard Morton described the pensioner as a father figure, who had taught him about hunting.

Between Christmas and New Year before his disappearance they had shot some geese, and Mr Birkett spoke of using one of the carcasses as a fox lure.

“It’s possible he decided to go hunting the fox that night,” said Mr Morton. But this idea did not sit right with him because the gun that was missing was not the one Mr Birkett would have used to hunt a fox.

Mr Morton said: “He always picked the right weapon for the type of hunting he was doing.” For a fox, he would have used a more high-powered rifle, he said.

Mr Morton described Mr Birkett as a man of serious patience, who was unlikely to have had a misadventure road accident as he would step into a gateway if a car was passing by.

The inquest also heard from the pensioner’s neighbour Raymond Uden, who recalled talking to Mr Birkett about a fox which was taking his geese in the September and October before he went missing. “I was losing a duck each night on average,” said Mr Uden.

Mr Birkett was a keen hunter, who looked after many local farmers who were troubled by “vermin” or foxes. He had offered to help Mr Uden and in December tracked the fox towards a local railway embankment.

It was then Mr Birkett suggested using a geese carcass as a lure. That night, said Mr Uden, he heard a high-powered rifle shot but the next day Mr Birkett said he had not hunted that night.

“He was aware of someone else on his patch and he said: ‘I hope I don’t find them’,” said Mr Uden. He added that he had promised him a dozen eggs a week for a year if he found the fox.

Detective Inspector Hodgson said Mr Birkett’s mobile phone had been left in the house. When examined it revealed nothing of interest or significance.

Nor had there been anything been taken out of his bank accounts.

“My theory is that he went out with his gun to do some hunting,” said the officer. Glasson was surrounded by open country and it was possible he went out to shoot rabbits and suffered a medical episode and died while concealed, possibly falling into a hole in a peat bog.

The Solway estuary was nearby. “He may well still be hidden, despite our best efforts searching,” continued the officer. There was no evidence of any other explanation, including foul play or suicide.

The pensioner’s sister Mabel Taylor said Mr Birkett was a countryman, who loved the outdoors and shooting.

A single man, his life revolved around farming, and he had a part-time job at H&H in Carlisle.

Despite living on his own, he had no TV and was a keen reader, a good conversationalist and very knowledgeable about lots of thing, she said.

He also had high blood pressure, and four years ago while trimming a tree he fell, injuring his back so badly he had metal rods inserted to repair the damage. He had a heart attack in September, 2018, but after having stents inserted was able to go back to work in six weeks.

He had no worries, and certainly no money worries, said Mrs Taylor.

Of the New Year’s Day visit, she said: “He was absolutely his cheery self, doing crosswords and actually enjoying the TV.”

Coroner Dr Nicholas Shaw said: “I think the police have done as thorough a job as they could, searching for and trying to locate Albert. We have had one or two possible incongruities in evidence but nothing of such significance that it needs to be followed up.

“We have to reach a conclusion and let the family move on…

“It’s most likely that while out shooting near his home in Glasson on the night of January 1 or 2, that he either had an accident or suffered a medical event and died.

“Despite extensive police searches and enquiries he has never been located and must be presumed be to deceased. The cause of death will have to be unascertained.”

The coroner said that because there were no answers about how, where and when Mr Birkett died there would have to be an open conclusion to the hearing.

“I have no alternative,” he said, adding that he hoped the pensioner’s family could now move on.

At its height, the search for Mr Birkett involved more than 100 people, including members of the Cumberland Farmers Foxhounds, who met at the Highland Laddie Inn, near Port Carlisle.