The poaching problem: Violent gangs target Exmoor's 'fat beasts'

Image caption Police say there has been a particular increase in information coming in about poaching on Exmoor

Poaching is on the increase across the country and with deer carcasses doubling in value in four years, police forces are reporting a shift in the type of people involved in the crime.

Devon and Cornwall Police patrol the area with the largest population of red deer in England and say it is time to "make a stand" against the poachers.

Poaching has long been associated with the lone individual in a long coat with a brace of pheasants over his shoulder.

But, the pursuit is being increasingly infiltrated by violent, organised gangs eyeing the profits of large-scale slaughter, with carcasses changing hands for hundreds of pounds.

They are using high-tech equipment to hunt the animals, on behalf of "unscrupulous" butchers, dealers and restaurants.

Dogs used

It is not only causing concern about firearms safety and trespass, but over the consequences of unlicensed or unchecked meat entering the food chain.

Now, a new initiative - named Project Trespass - has been set up to crack down on illegal poachers, with the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) naming it one of the UK's top wildlife crime priorities.

Police say modern poaching includes the use of sophisticated telescopic rifles with night sights, powerful lamps and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

To avoid detection, some will use quieter weapons such as crossbows and knives and police say groups of people are getting together to take a number of deer in one night.

Wildlife crime officers say another common practice is coursing by dogs, with lurchers being used to chase down deer.

While hunting techniques may differ across the country, what wildlife officers, farmers and national park rangers agree on, what these poachers all have in common, is "disrespect" for the deer population.

'Systematically taking animals'

Det Insp Nevin Hunter, head of the NWCU, said intelligence reports relating to illegal poaching countrywide are on the rise.

"The odd guy going and poaching the odd deer is probably less serious to deal with than the person involved who is part of a gang that is going around and systematically taking large numbers of animals and threatening people on farms," he said.

"What we do know is that people will travel all around the country involved in illegal poaching."

He said they have seen a particular increase in information coming in about poaching in Devon and on Exmoor - which has the largest population of red deer in England.

"While there is a huge population of red deer in Scotland, the red deer in Scotland are small and puny compared to the big fat beasts you get down on Exmoor," he said.

"Therefore, the venison from Devon fetches more money."

Image caption Often the only evidence left that poaching has taken place is the carcass of a part butchered deer
Image caption National Trust head ranger for west Exmoor, Julian Gurney, said there has been a "definite decrease" in the number of stags he has heard this rut
Image caption A carcass can fetch £200, with people paying hundreds of pounds for the antlers

When a deer is killed, it is likely to be part-butchered where it falls before the best cuts of venison are loaded into a vehicle.

At the end of October, it was revealed police in South Molton found 11 stag heads - with their antlers shorn off - dumped in a lay-by, close to Exmoor National Park.

The discovery prompted reports that poaching in the area is "spiralling out of control".

While it is not illegal to shoot deer in daylight, hunters need permission from landowners and licences for their firearms. It is illegal to shoot at night.

Penalties for illegal poaching include large fines with the option of a three-month prison sentence.

Despite this, a doubling in the price of venison in the last four years seems to be attracting more people to risk the punishment.

PC Martin Beck, wildlife crime officer for Devon and Cornwall Police, said there are a variety of outlets for the meat, including "unscrupulous butchers, game dealers and pubs and restaurants looking for meat through the back door".

Just one carcass can fetch £200, with people paying hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds for the antlers.

'Lowest of the low'

"It is not just one for the pot any more, these are organised people making money," PC Beck said.

"They have a network of people, who can get together, quite quickly on a certain night, to go out, they know what they are doing, they are going out to purposefully take the meat, the animal, and they know how to get rid of it to make money.

"These people will protect themselves, some of the people are linked to other crimes and some of those crimes do involve violence."

An increase in poaching is also causing concern around game meat laws with best-practice guidance and meat hygiene regulations being ignored.

National Trust head ranger for west Exmoor Julian Gurney, said: "We know if we go and buy beef, the piece of beef can be traced back to the farm it came from and trace its genetic line - that has been put in place to protect us.

"But for people buying venison - and there are perfectly legitimate suppliers - but I am not sure that we are asking enough questions as to where this meat is coming from."

Exmoor beef and sheep farmer, Oliver Edwards, added: "[Poachers] are the lowest of the low.

"They have no idea - they will be selling that meat, the meat hasn't been checked to see if it is safe, or for instance if it has TB, or if the condition of the animal is not good enough, it won't have been butchered properly, it goes on and on."

'Fear repercussions'

PC Beck said that they are now "making a stand" and hope to work with farmers and landowners to get more information on the crime.

"Farmers are coming to us saying poaching's rife, but sometimes they are very reluctant to get involved because of the fear of repercussions," he said.

"People might get their tyres slashed, or damage to machinery, someone sneaking on to a farm in the night and doing some damage... they are vulnerable because of their isolation in rural areas.

"Hopefully, we can get the confidence of farmers to let us know what they see, what they hear and we can start targeting our patrols."

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