Page last updated at 20:15 GMT, Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Deer poaching incidents increase

By Jeremy Cooke
Rural affairs correspondent, BBC News

Fallow deer
Deer poaching is a growing problem in England and Wales

The number of reported incidents of deer poaching has doubled in the past year, according to latest figures.

In England and Wales the official number stands at 200.

But some, including Tom Blades from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, believe that the real figure could be much greater.

He says that better co-operation with the police could help. And new rural police patrols are already setting out to catch poachers in the act.

He said: "These are serious criminals involved in all types of criminality. The police need to recognise that, and they are doing.

"This is a huge step forward, working in partnership with the police, and the gamekeeping community have their own part to play in this.

We are absolutely committed to targeting these people
Pc Duncan Thomas

"It can be hugely intimidating for a gamekeeper on his own with a huge group of poachers.

"But obviously gamekeepers need to look out for their own safety, take responsible actions and not get themselves into a situation which might be dangerous for them. So we really need the police on board with this."

In beautiful woodland on the Cumbria Lancashire border, Gareth Cole is stalking deer. He uses his high-powered rifle to kill the animals he has carefully selected.

Mr Cole is an old school countryman. And he has been appointed the first national wildlife crime officer.

'Inhumane and suffering'

In the boot of his jeep, he shows me a fallow deer that he shot the day before, and uses it to stress the difference between what he does and the methods of the modern poacher.

"This was one shot, straight through the heart from 20 metres, killed instantly, humanely. That's opposed to the poacher coming along during the night with a lamp," he said.

"He lets his dogs loose, the dogs chase the animal they grip it by the throat and rip its throat out.

"Or they grab it by the back end and drag it down by its haunches. It is inhumane and causes an immense amount of suffering."

The poachers operate at night. They use powerful lamps to identify where herds of deer are grazing.

When this beam falls on the deer they do not scatter or run, they simply stand frozen to the spot, easy targets for the poachers and the dogs they use to drag the deer to the ground.

It leaves many gamekeepers feeling frustrated and vulnerable. In many rural areas the police are already taking the problem seriously.

'Horrible villains'

In the Lancashire countryside a marked police 4x4 is a well known sight on the lanes and backroads. The driver looks more like a gamekeeper than a police officer.

But he is in fact Pc Duncan Thomas, a wildlife crime officer on a mission against a new breed of poacher. For him, you get the idea, that this is personal.

"We are absolutely committed to targeting these people," he said. "They are horrible, they are villains.

"You wouldn't want one wandering around your back garden so why should the farmer over there put up with one wandering around his back yard?"

Deer poaching is an issue about theft, intimidation, trespass and cruelty. It is also about human health.

And there are warnings this Christmas that the illegal venison coming on to the market has not been subjected to the strict meat safety standards which should apply.

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