By Danny Savage
North of England correspondent, BBC News
Lamping can make timid animals appear tame
Police say the stereotype of poachers taking "one for the pot" is not true anymore. Now the National Wildlife Crime Unit is targeting the poachers to address what is seen as a growing problem.
It's late at night on the edge of Grizedale Forest near Hawkshead in Cumbria. A stag has been caught in the light of a bright lamp. It stops still and then begins to walk slowly across the field.
"Lamping" can make these normally timid animals behave almost as if they are tame. Within a few seconds this young male deer, with its long antlers, has walked almost right up to the lamp.
Rifles with silencers
At this point a poacher would set a dog off down the beam to bring the deer down or use a rifle with a silencer.
The old romantic image of a guy living in the country with a family, on a low wage, nipping out of the backdoor into the woods and fields at night to take a rabbit or a pheasant or two to feed the family just isn't true anymore
PC David Hall
Luckily for this deer, though, the man standing next to me holding the lamp is Pc David Hall, who tonight is running an anti-poaching operation in south Cumbria.
You don't often see them this close, he says as his lamp tracks the animal back into a nearby wood.
"Poaching is on the increase in this part of the country." PC Hall says. "The old romantic image of a guy living in the country with a family, on a low wage, nipping out of the back door into the woods and fields at night to take a rabbit or a pheasant or two to feed the family just isn't true anymore."
"These people are in it mainly for the money and sometimes what they would call sport. I certainly wouldn't."
A carcass can fetch £300 to 400 when sold at the back door to pubs and restaurants which may ask few questions.
On the trail of night-time poachers
The evening had begun hours earlier with a briefing in an old chapel on the nearby Braithwaite estate.
In the shadow of several stag head trophies on the walls some nearly 100 years old Pc Hall briefed a varied collection of local people who were taking part in the operation.
They included conservationists, gamekeepers and landowners such as Miles Sandys, whose estate we were on. I regard poaching as stealing. If someone came into your house with a gun and nicked your television that would be regarded by the police as armed robbery and I really can't see the difference, quite honestly," Mr Sandys told me.
During the briefing the watchers are given specific vehicle registration numbers to look out for belonging to poachers known to be active in the area. But the big problem with prosecuting this crime is gathering sufficient evidence.
A car can be stopped and a deer found in the boot, but if the driver claims he just found the carcass by the roadside, there is little chance of taking the case to court. Poachers really have to be caught red-handed.
Poachers have to be caught red-handed
Shortly before midnight PC Hall gets a call reporting a suspicious pick-up vehicle in the area. We rush towards where it was sighted but it has gone somewhere down a maze of country lanes.
A short time later, the network of watchers spot the vehicle again this time it is parked up. But when we get to the scene it emerges that it belongs to a local farmer who had been out lamping rabbits and keeping an eye on his own deer.
Well it proves the system works, says PC Hall as the operation begins to wind down
So, we didn't find any poachers but those involved believe that is good news. They feel the word is out that poaching is being taken seriously in this part of the country and that deer in Cumbria are being afforded some protection.
Whether that means the crime is simply being moved on to a different area isn't yet clear, but the neighbouring police force in Lancashire are running a similar scheme.
And the reason is that poachers are often found to be part of organised crime gangs, with the illegal taking of deer and other animals just part of their activities. Unlicensed guns and cars are also found in many cases.
This is a difficult crime to quantify - it is estimated that thousands of deer go missing each year.
In rural areas, where there can be miles between houses, extensive poaching can go unnoticed - which is why the National Wildlife Crime Unit are prioritising poaching as a crime which needs to have more resources to tackle it.
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