Rural crime is on the increase but don’t be tempted to take on the culprits yourself — get wildlife police involved, urges Liam Bell
As sure as day follows night, hare coursing and the poaching of gamebirds and deer become more prevalent after harvest. The seasonal increase in poaching and rural crime generally isn’t for any noble reason or observation of a season of any sort, it is simply due to the fact that until the corn is cut most things have somewhere to hide and are relatively safe. People who poach things have no respect for property nor the law, never mind the breeding and growing seasons of what they kill.
My first bit of advice when dealing with these people is to make sure you stay safe. We have all heard stories of keepers single-handedly taking on gangs of poachers and not only getting away with it, but putting the fear of God into them, but I do wonder how many times it has happened.
Approaching a single lamper in the middle of a field is one thing; trying to take on a car or multiple cars full of hare coursers who have travelled an unknown distance and who are riding around your fields in an unregistered vehicle is quite another.
If the latter, taking notes, following them and calling the police are not only the right things to do, they are also the safe things to do. No deer, no hare or pheasant is worth your getting hurt. No matter how hard it is to hold back, no matter how difficult you find it to keep a distance, it is the right thing to do if you are outnumbered.
Get close enough to identify them, and their vehicle and their dogs, and to find out whether or not they are armed, but try to avoid any direct physical confrontation if you can.
Talking to them and telling them to clear off might be your instinct, but trying to enforce it if they become aggressive is another matter entirely.
Interestingly, I have found that the ones who are most polite and make excuses and leave straight away when spoken to are the ones who are most likely to come back. They know the drill; they don’t want to be kept there until the police arrive and they don’t want you taking too many details and too many pictures of their more than probably illegal vehicle.
While we are talking about the police, they come in for some unfair criticism regarding their attending incidents involving hare coursing and night poaching.
There is nothing a copper would rather do than catch criminals, if only they had the time. Rural police forces are so understaffed, and many stations are either no longer manned at night or have even been closed permanently, that they simply can’t be everywhere at once and have to prioritise their calls.
What we can do as keepers and shoot captains, though, is build relationships with our force’s rural crime officers and safer neighbourhood teams and let them know what is happening and how often. If they aren’t aware that any crime is being committed, and have no knowledge of how often and why it takes place, they are never going to understand the issues or their effects.
The first stage — and most important step in involving the police more — is to make sure every incident is logged and that you always get an incident number from the call handler and ask for a follow-up call.
Call handlers are sometimes reluctant to give you an incident number, or say they are going to call you back with it and don’t. When this happens, insist on being given a number and call back if they don’t return your call. You need to hammer, hammer, hammer until it gets through to them that the incidents you are reporting are important.
Rural crime police are nearly always officers with some prior understanding of the countryside and country sports. They usually already have a good grasp of issues we face and the number of other crimes associated with and connected to the people who course hares, catapult pheasants and shoot deer illegally.
By making sure we log every incident, and keep the police up to speed on what is going on, we paint a picture of what’s happening and where. We keep the information current and relevant. The more incidents that are logged, the more of a priority it becomes.
Invite your rural crime officer over and show them the crop damage caused by vehicles being driven across the fields when they have been drilled. Show them pictures of dead hares and shot and wounded birds. Take them on a tour of your shoot and show them where things have happened. If you don’t show them, they are never going to know.
Information sharing is key. We have an estate WhatsApp group for general information and picture sharing. We use it to log the registration numbers of suspicious cars and make notes of dodgy individuals, as well as share images of actual incidents as they are happening and evidence that an incident has taken place. All of which can be referred to and passed on to the police.
I am on another one that covers rural crime locally, which updates you on ongoing incidents with real-time information — most useful.
Digging anti-coursing ditches around your fields, blocking gateways and erecting barriers will only get you so far. To make real progress with these people you need arrests, raids and prosecutions. Confiscated vehicles, rehomed dogs and antisocial behaviour orders work wonders, but it can be a long and far from straight road getting there.
If you are being targeted, stay safe, be seen, stay alert, make a note of everything you see and report each and every incident that occurs to your local wildlife crime officer.
Sadly, you do eventually get hardened to these incidences, but the police do take poaching and other rural crimes seriously, and it does get easier.