How Suffolk's Rural Policing Team are combating deer poaching
PUBLISHED: 10:59 05 February 2019
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Forget the romantic, folkloric image of the poacher. Suzy Stennett talks to Suffolk's Rural Policing Team about a cruel, barbaric crime
The wild deer population of the UK is now estimated to be approximately 2 million, greater than at any time since the last ice age.
With no natural predators wild deer numbers continue to increase, and the necessity for sustainable management in order to ensure a healthy population in balance with the environment is widely acknowledged.
The British Deer Society runs a series of detailed certificated courses in the art of deer management and stalking to ensure that culling is conducted safely, legally, and as humanely as possible. Participants are educated not only in the humane despatch of deer, but also about their behaviours and ecology, as well as firearm safety and the inspection, field preparation, transport and storage of carcasses, in order to ensure the safe entry of wild venison into the food chain.
But not all wild game hunters are so diligent, or respectful of their quarry. During autumn and winter, Suffolk’s rural policing team sees an increase in deer poaching, when stags are in full antler following the rutting season from late September to early November, and long hours of darkness hinder detection of such illegal activities.
The Deer Act 1991 makes it an offence to “intentionally take, kill or injure, or attempt to take, kill or injure, any deer, search for or pursue any deer with the intention of taking, killing or injuring it, or remove the carcase of any deer without the consent of the owner or occupier of the land or other lawful authority.”
It further stipulates that taking or killing wild deer during the closed season(s), and also at night – “between the expiry of the first hour after sunset and the beginning of the last hour before sunrise” – is an offence regardless of any landowner’s consent.
Furthermore, the act details weapons not fit for purpose, specifically prohibiting traps, snares and poison, as well as firearms and ammunition not proficient for a clean, humane kill.
The aim of the legislation, clearly, is to prevent uncontrolled killing and undue suffering of these beautiful beasts that roam the countryside. But it’s also to protect consumers from venison obtained illegally, as the act of buying and selling poached deer is included as an offence.
Why is deer poaching so bad? Whether stocking their own freezers, or hoping to earn cash in hand by supplying ingredients through the back door for their local pub’s game pie, a poacher taking deer without permission from a landowner is unlikely to have studied the group and can upset the dimensions of the herd and any herd management plans in progress.
Someone hunting without taking due care and following best practices is not likely to have much regard for what lies beyond their target either. A stray rifle bullet can travel for miles, posing significant risk of damage or injury to anything or anyone in the way. Another potential risk from venison via unofficial sources is contamination, if the carcase hasn’t been correctly inspected.
Not all poachers are poaching for the pot. Reports of headless deer carcasses being found, the remainder of the body simply discarded, suggest large stags with impressive sets of antlers are being targeted for their value as a mounted trophy. And the reckless slaughter doesn’t stop there.
Alarmingly there is a new breed of poacher, aptly named ‘psycho-poachers’. Depraved and dangerous, these organised gangs seek their thrills through seeing the deer suffer. Their vehicles loaded with dogs, lurcher-cross-bull-terriers, specifically bred for a terrifying mix of canine strength and speed, these psycho-poachers scour the countryside at night to target a herd of deer.
Once the herd is located, they drive at it, sending the deer fleeing in fear, then pick on an individual separated in the turmoil, dropping their dogs out of the car to pursue the ill-fated victim. The chase is on, and once the first set of dogs begins to tire and fall behind the deer, another set is dropped from the car to continue the pursuit.
Tearing across the countryside, damaging crops on their way, sometimes giving the deer a nudge with the vehicle’s bumper for a further kick, until the exhausted, tortured animal finally gives up and succumbs to the snarling pack.
These gangs are difficult to infiltrate, and their exact objectives indeterminate, but stories have surfaced of bets being placed on who can return to an agreed meeting point with the most deer ears, and competitions on the number of heads that can be collected, run on an allocated points system. A stag head, for example, earns more points than a pheasant head.
The carcasses are left to bloat, the meat tainted by the adrenaline coursing around the terrified animal’s body on the way to its death. Perversely proud of their activities, these psycho-poachers pose with their kill and post their glory shots on social media, bragging about their bloodthirsty tendencies among their peers.
Although cases of such psycho-poaching are not prevalent in Suffolk, Sgt Brian Calver and his colleagues in the county’s Rural Policing Team were mortified to find three red stags, obvious casualties of psycho-poachers’ sick games last year.
Sgt Calver advises that those who commit cruelty to animals are more often than not linked to other criminality, and asks for any signs of poaching, such as carcasses, or the remains of deer, unexplained tyre marks across private land, or pictures and videos of such activities on social media to be reported to the rural policing team by either calling 101 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, in order to help build intelligence of such events.
He warns, however, that as deer poaching involves firearms and blades, anyone observing what they suspect is deer poaching in progress should call 999.
Video or photographic evidence is also invaluable for prosecution, but Sgt Calver warns that these are potentially dangerous people and urges anyone witnessing such activities to remain a safe distance from the scene.
Dealing with deer incidents
Established in 2017 and now based in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk’s Rural Policing Team is co-ordinated by Sergeant Brian Calver.
Covering the county of Suffolk, but working closely with surrounding forces, the team of three specifically trained police officers has a passion for the countryside and wildlife, and specialises in preventing, educating and reassuring, intelligence gathering and prosecuting in all aspects of rural crime.
The installation of trail cameras by landowners suspicious of deer poaching, and other criminal activities, on their land could greatly assist arrest and successful prosecution. Under the Deer Act 1991, this could lead to prison sentences of up to six months, a fine of up to £5,000, and/or, if appropriate, a ban from owning dogs.
One exception, endorsed under the Deer Act 1991, is the killing of a deer for the purpose of preventing its further suffering from injury or disease. The National Deer-Vehicle Collisions Project estimates there are between 42,000 and 74,000 road accidents involving deer in the UK each year.
If it happens to you, the police can allocate a trained, approved deer warden to deal with an injured deer appropriately. Incidents should be reported by calling 999 if the circumstances pose danger to motorists, otherwise 101, when control room officers will advise and co-ordinate accordingly.