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Rural Poachers: Heroes or Villians?

Graham Harvey

Archers agricultural adviser

The Grundy family have been discussing the rights and wrongs of small-scale poaching – catching a couple of pheasants “for the pot”. To Eddie and Joe it’s almost a way of life, an ancient “right”.

Their view is based on the romantic idea that poor country families had no option but to illegally shoot or snare game if they were not to go hungry. There’s a political angle to it, too. Behind it lies the notion that land enclosure – the practice of “privatising” land which went on from Tudor times until the early 19th century – robbed working people of their traditional rights to land. So stealing the odd pheasant or catching a couple of trout was merely balancing things up.

But when Joe and Eddie expressed this view alarm bells were ringing for Clarrie. Her view was simple: Taking game species that belong to a landowner was theft. She had no truck with Eddie and Joe’s outdated morality. In a barely concealed reference to Eddie’s criminal brother Alf, Clarrie’s view is that one thief in the family is one too many.

A dangerous myth

It’s fair to say that the people at the sharp end of dealing with rural crime strongly support Clarrie’s view. The idea that the modern poacher is some sort of rural hero is a dangerous myth, they claim. It’s based on the wrong-headed idea that wild animals are “ownerless” and that poaching is a victimless rural pursuit. Today’s poachers are motivated by profit rather than feeding their own families. And the methods they use are often cruel and brutal.

The most common method of poaching deer is by coursing with dogs supported by four-wheel drive vehicles. Working at night - with minimal use of high-powered lamps so as to avoid detection – this method is effective and horribly cruel.

Criminals gain access to land through gateways and insecure fences. Deer are chased and high-speed and the lurcher-type dogs are slipped while the vehicles are on the move. The deer are dragged down and often mauled before the poachers dispatch them. Some gangs drive their vehicles directly at the deer causing untold suffering.

Move on to other crime

Tackling poaching is one of the National Wildlife Crime Unit’s top priorities. They say the crime blights the countryside and affects farmers, landowners and other country people. Analysis of wildlife crime figures show that poachers often move on to other types of crime including other thefts, burglaries and assault. Poaching offences in the countryside increase in the autumn following harvest and as the hours of darkness increase.

It seems Clarrie is right. Whatever Eddie and Joe’s motives, poaching “for the pot” has generally disappeared. Modern-day poachers are principally in it for profit. And it doesn’t seem to matter to them too much how much pain and suffering they cause.

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