A spate of dog thefts and rural crime in the Thames Valley area is believed to be the work of organised crime gangs, according to police.

Chief inspector Simon Dodds, Andover district commander and strategic lead for rural policing in the Hampshire Constabulary, told Shooting Times magazine: ?The theft of dogs remains uncommon in Hampshire, however in December we saw a worrying series of these offences, the circumstances surrounding which indicated the involvement of organised crime groups.?

?This included the targeting of specific breeds of working dogs housed in outdoor kennels, the use of high-powered off-road vehicles, and links between offences across a large geographic area covering neighbouring counties.?

He said the investigation into the thefts was being led by officers from Hampshire Police?s criminal investigation department, local Country Watch and Safer Neighbourhood teams, and that a number of arrests have already been made.

?Without doubt, key to progress has been information given to us by the public. From vigilant members of our rural communities reporting suspicious vehicles and behaviour, to people who know something about those involved and the impact these terrible offences have on the dogs? owners, I can?t stress enough the importance of keeping this information coming in,? he said.

A spokesman from www.dogwatchalert.com, a website that helps to recover lost and stolen dogs in the Thames Valley area, said: ?There has been a dog-napping epidemic in Hampshire recently, and it is believed that some of the dogs stolen may have been victims of the same gangs. Hampshire police have arrested three men on suspicion of dog theft and we hope this may put an end to the current wave of thefts.?

?Almost all the dogs stolen recently have been working spaniels. The thieves are professionals and know what they are looking for and how to handle strange dogs. Typically, in a kennels with several dogs, they only steal the ones that are in their prime, ignoring older ones and young puppies.?

?The thefts come in waves. Several working dogs are stolen in a short space of time, and then things go relatively quiet for a year or two before the next assault.?

He said an attempt was made to steal 10 working dogs in Hungerford on 30 December, but the thieves were disturbed by an alarm.

Thames Valley police dealt with 15 incidents during that month.

He added: ?Our advice is to ensure that kennels are padlocked. Fit an alarm system and CCTV if possible. Report all snoopers to the police, together with the registration number of their vehicle ? they are often casing the joint to see where the dogs are kennelled.?

?Above all, get all your dogs microchipped. A stolen dog that is not chipped is seldom seen again, but dog thieves carry a scanner and often, when they find that the dog is chipped, they believe it is too ?hot? to handle and will abandon it.?

Detective Constable Jackie Murdock is in charge of dog crime for the Thames Valley police.

If you have any information about dog theft in the area Tel: 01865 293955.

RURAL CRIME MEETING

Farmers, landowners, rural businesses, gamekeepers and estate managers in the Princes Risborough, Hazlemere and Flackwell areas are invited to a meeting at the Clare Foundation, Saunderton on 5 February at 6.45pm.

The police, firearms licensing team and National Farmers Union will be present to discuss rural crime.

To attend, contact WPC Claire Marchant by email claire.marchant@thamesvalley.pnn.police.uk

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