I can think of very few keepers – or the estates on which they work – that have not been victims of poaching at some point or another. This can range from a minor irritation to a major problem that blights lives. A friend of mine has what seems to be one of the nicest keepering jobs available. He has a good boss who makes sure he has all the equipment he needs, he is well looked after and is rewarded for his efforts. The keeper’s cottage is idyllic, set in the archetypal chocolate box surroundings.
But there is one major drawback: poaching has plagued the estate. This is due to a number of reasons, and not just its location. As the harvest is being gathered in, as well as anticipating the forthcoming season, my friend is also aware that those with ill intent will now be looking to access the grounds.
You may not have been aware of it until now, but poaching is a UK Wildlife Crime Priority, and that the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), with its specialist police intelligence unit, helps to co-ordinate a partnership approach to tackle the problem.
There are six Wildlife Crime Priorities in total. As part of the combined efforts for dealing with these different crime priorities there are ‘delivery groups’ who are tasked with helping formulate a national strategy for dealing with these crimes. Each group is led by a ‘plan owner’, of which I am one for the England and Wales section of the poaching priority delivery group.
As a group, as well as having the expertise of the NWCU staff and other police officers, we also have representatives from the Angling Trust, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Countryside Alliance, the Country Land and Business Assocaition, the Deer Initiative, Environment Agency, Food Standards Agency, National Farmer’s Union and the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation. We are all determined to tackle the issue of poaching.
One of the issues surrounding poaching is that, while it is a crime, it is not classed as a recordable offence by Home Office statistics, which means it is difficult to obtain accurate figures. Another concern that further distorts this picture is the under-reporting of poaching, and indeed much other rural crime. Many of us will move on hare coursers or spot the remains of poached deer, but will not report it to the police. In all honesty, as a keeper myself in the past I have not done so either, but I now know that this was a mistake. Simply put, if you do not tell the police there is a problem then nothing can be done about it. But then, it is no good relying on others or complaining when you do call, as you will not get the service you require.
Report all poaching incidents to the police, either on the non-emergency number 101 or, if it is urgent – such as if a crime is taking place or you are being threatened – use 999. Make sure you give the call handler as much information as possible. The importance of the call handler’s role is vital and how they record your information has a significant impact on how it is used. Phrases that are instantly recognisable to keepers such as ‘lampers’ or ‘dogmen’ will hold no meaning to someone from a town situated several miles away in a control room. Therefore, be extremely detailed in describing what is happening, including all relevant information such as any involvement of firearms and, crucially, give a clear account of your location. It is important that you get an incident or log number from the call handler to ensure your call has been recorded.
You may be told that there is no officer immediately available to send to you, and while this is not what you want to hear if you are standing in a field observing a crime unfolding, I would urge you not to see this as a disincentive to reporting future incidents. Do not give up. Insist on the incident number being forwarded to both your local beat officer and the force’s wildlife crime officer. It is also important to tell the call handler to record the offence as a wildlife crime, as the police use this intelligence regularly, and by providing information in the correct way it will help illustrate the true nature of poaching crimes.
In times where police and public spending cuts are well publicised, it is clear that they will deploy officers as and when they are most needed. Intelligence, including reports of these incidents, will help police identify problems and inform them of where to deploy their resources and efforts.
We should not forget that many poachers could be involved in other rural crimes: the car with hare coursers in that you moved could be the same vehicle that was spotted at a burglary or towing off a trailer. If you had made a note of the number plate of that suspicious car and forwarded it on to the police, there might have been enough intelligence to make further enquiries and arrests.
I often hear from keepers and farmers the disappointment they have felt having called the police but no one coming in response or, if a
police response did turn up, they did not know what to do. Unfortunately in the modern age we have moved away from the local bobby living in the village known to the community and familiar with the issues of rural crime, but times are changing. Many forces now have dedicated wildlife and rural policing teams. If you are experiencing difficulties in finding out who they are, making contact is a good idea. Another sensible action to take would be to look at your security on the shoot. It’s easy to say we should not have to, but if we take precautions with our homes then why not on the shoot? The rural police team will be able to advise on the specifics. As a general rule, if it is easy for you to gain access then it is just as easy for others too. My friend has put gates and barriers on all the fields in his poaching hotspot, and the dykes and hedges are well maintained, which makes unauthorised access possible only by foot. Thus the potential for a poacher to be caught is increased, and this in itself is a great deterrent.
Some forces have initiated some very effective anti-poaching operations. One, the Lincolnshire Polices’ ‘Operation Galileo’, saw 186 people dealt with by the courts last year. The operation has just been recommenced again to coincide with the peak of illegal coursing activities and is also being implemented by other East Anglian forces. We are lucky that a police officer who is a member of the poaching priority delivery group is also a wildlife crime officer.
The poaching priority delivery group is working to tackle poaching. We have initiatives to provide training and advice, to not only those affected by poaching, but those responsible for policing it. We are also raising the profile of this problem to those who may be able to influence actions against it, including the recently elected Police and Crime Commissioners, who I have written to.
Attitudes to poaching are changing. For too long it has been viewed as a minor crime, thanks to the idealistic view of the starving labourer taking one for the team. But nothing could be further from the truth.