Trapping the poachers 

Deer poaching is a serious issue for gamekeepers and farmers. Here Duncan Thomas runs through some ways you can be pro-active in helping to tackle this rural crime.

I would arrive in the office early on a Monday morning to find the answerphone flashing like a beacon. As a full-time Wildlife Crime Officer (WCO) for Lancashire Police I never really knew what messages would be recorded.  Anything from, “I have a jackdaw nesting in my chimney, can I shoot it?” To, “I’ve heard developers are planning to build on the field behind the house – where can I get hold of some of those ‘special newts’?” Or the all-too-regular, “I’ve found a dead deer under the hedge, I’ve brought it back to the farm – looks like dogs have had it.”

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A carcuss can give a pretty good understanding as to what has happened.

It was often with a sense of frustration I would meet farmers and gamekeepers and they would tell me that “there were a couple of rum looking lads on the lower pasture last week with running dogs, but I didn’t think it was worth reporting it.” I would have to try and hide the disappointment of another chance missed. A chance, at minimum, to find out exactly who the trespassers were, and which could be converted into valuable intelligence. Always report suspicious instances and incidents in real time.

This must also be balanced against the challenge that police forces have in responding. All have suffered ruthless cuts and often there simply isn’t an officer available to respond, let alone a qualified or experienced WCO, who should know the legislation and points to prove poaching offences. Often the officer attending a reported incident simply doesn’t have the knowledge to effectively deal with the offenders, meaning chances to prosecute are often missed. Farmers and gamekeepers tend not to suffer fools gladly and can be reluctant to ring again, but don’t ever give up. Often there is a temptation to ‘deal with it in-house’, but its simply not worth risking your valuable licence or endangering yourself, so we must think smart and long-term.

Welcome to the world of ‘you should have been here yesterday’

My current role as the Regional Officer for BASC here in the North of England, often involves advising estates and shoots on poaching issues. One of the classic chances to catch poachers that is often missed is the deer carcass that has been killed overnight then secreted under a hedge for collection in the morning. We even had a lady who would pick her husband’s ‘ill gotten-gains’ on the morning school run. A hidden carcass is in that place for a reason – they are coming back for it. Locally-run deer management groups need to be in a position to respond and potentially mount ‘sit and waits’. But always pre-warn the local police that’s what your planning so there is back up ready if you score. Consider a cheap trail camera if you can’t raise the troops. They now take great images and could easily generate enough evidence to potentially lead to a warrant and an early-morning call for the poacher. Never plan to confront the poachers, always plan to lead the police in for the final approach. If you happen across ne’er-do-wells whilst on keeping or stalking duties, record any conversation. Carry a dictaphone or ensure you have practised switching your mobile onto record swiftly and discreetly. Always record covertly, don’t cause a flash point and always remain calm and collected if you end up in a confrontation.

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Keeping an eye out for signs of activity can give an indication that, someone else has taken an interest in your land

Local police recently had a high-profile success where six saboteurs were arrested after causing repeated damage on a local pheasant estate. The initial police response was woeful, but after some polite pressure and guidance the pro-active local WCO saw the job and took charge. The result was multiple warrants and house arrests, leading to a superb set of charges including ‘conspiracy to commit criminal damage’. Evidence was obtained via laptops and mobile phones and will hopefully secure some quality convictions.

Becoming a Facebook ‘stalker’ is another way to catch poachers. Some of the hard-core poachers, especially the ones doing it for ‘sport’ as opposed to gain, will post in restricted Facebook groups. We recently intercepted some horrendous images of a lad deliberately coursing roe deer with his lurcher; a few tactical screen grabs secured enough evidence for his subsequent arrest and conviction in North Yorkshire.

The way you report incidents can go a long way towards ensuring a decent response. Always have the generic reporting number for your local police pre-programmed into your phone – up here it’s 101. And don’t feel embarrassed about using 999 if it is appropriate. Remember if you are being threatened with violence it’s a 999 call. Never exaggerate what’s happening as ‘crying wolf’ will not be helpful long-term, but phrases like “the offenders are still at the scene”, “the offence is in progress”, “they are committing a criminal offence of poaching and have also made threats”, “I’ve been told by our local police to report such incidents”, are all ‘trigger phrases’ and can ensure a more effective and immediate response. Always ask for a log number and if you’re not satisfied with the response politely ask that the incident is viewed by the duty sergeant or inspector.

For long term repeated problems, invite the local neighbourhood police sergeant onto the estate and explain the problem. Ensure they understand it’s not just about the price of a deer carcass, it’s much more. Explain the loss of revenue to the estate of the stalking fee, the venison lost, the disturbance factor, the threats and nuisance, welfare of the deer, unborn being aborted. Explain that you are often a lone worker and potentially vulnerable… the list goes on and on.

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Finding gralloch is a clear sign someone has been up to no good.

The NWCU (National Wildlife Crime Unit) have rightly identified poaching as a national priority and the unit has secured funding for another four years. This is a great result. The NWCU don’t respond to actual incidents but coordinate, train and assist local officers in investigations.

I am not sure that deer poaching is getting worse but I do understand the extreme aggravation and potential risk that gamekeepers and deer managers face whilst trying to challenge these rural criminals. And criminals is exactly what they are. The same offenders that are poaching deer are highly likely to also be the ones stealing diesel, farm equipment, quads and damaging crops. Most rural police officers are aware of this and regularly hold rural crime operations. Ask to get involved and build a positive working relationship with your local police. Don’t ever forget though, a deer is not worth your certificate, or, more importantly, your personal safety.

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A haul of venison recovered from a sophisticated poaching operation.