Deer poaching is becoming one of the most widespread rural crimes in the UK ? the latest figures show that more than 50,000 deer a year are illegally killed onprivate land and this figure is expected to rise as poachers find a ready demand for sales of wild venison at almost £2 per kilo. The market for stolen venison is worth an estimated £5million. Almost a year ago, 50 police officers arrested five men in East Sussex in connection with a suspected commercial deer poaching gang, and in Gloucestershire, the poaching problem is described as ?rocketing?. One keeper from Stroud told Shooting Times that poaching was a symptom of the recession and was considered ?easy money?.

While ?dedicated rural policing? was once hailed a major step forward in tackling crime in the countryside, tightening police authority budgets throughout the UK have seen this sector of crime prevention take a hammering. Several forces have launched Poacher Watch schemes and some areas are still lucky enough to have an effective rural police constable whose responsibilities cover all levels of poaching and trespass, yet vast areas of the countryside are now viewed as an ?open door? to criminals.

One such area is North Yorkshire. Murton Grange, a renowned north of England shoot owned by Sir Tom Cowie, is situated in a remote location in Hambleton on the top of Sutton Bank, near Thirsk. There is no village in Hambleton and the area has to be covered by police based some distance away in Thirsk. But, while local police say they are doing all they can to help to combat deer poaching, landowner Derek Cornforth, whose land adjoins Murton Grange and who manages Sir Tom?s shoot, says the situation is ?worsening by the week?.

?There are vehicles careering over our land four or five nights every week. These people have criminal intent and will stop at nothing. They want the deer and will go across any land or through any hedge to get what they want,? he said.

?We?ve also had farm machinery damaged, farm buildings broken into and locks on field gates wrenched off to gain entry to land. We have a policy of never leaving any machinery in the fields overnight. Everything always comes back to the farm and is locked away. We?ve had the workshop broken into, chemicals taken out of the chemical store and fuel tanks emptied.?

For the past 10 years, a programme of fencing, ditch building and hedge planting has been underway at Derek?s Long Plain Farm and the adjoining 1,400-acre Murton Grange, in an attempt to reduce unlawful access from gangs drawn to the area from Teeside, about 30 miles away. Derek has fitted padlocks to every gate on roadside fields on his 600-acre farm.

Damaging crops

Night-time poachers have been causing extensive damage to newly sown arable crops in fields along the A1 in North Yorkshire, where a £60million road-widening scheme is causing severe land security concerns for farmers. Extending the two-lane highway into three lanes has triggered serious trespass problems for local farmers by providing easy access to fields bordering the A1, after boundary fences were temporarily removed and new access roads were under construction.

The Penty family, whose farmhouse at Oak Tree Farm, in Burniston, near Bedale, is situated only yards from the A1, farm land on both sides of the highway, which carries a high volume of traffic. Deer poachers have wasted no time in seizing the opportunity to trespass and have driven vehicles into several of their fields alongside the road, causing widespread damage to newly sown winter wheat and a standing crop of maize. ?It?s bad enough that people are watching for any chance to trespass on private land, but to have caused all this damage when we?ve put so much work into establishing a new crop makes it even worse,? said Robert Penty.

At one point, while in pursuit of roe deer, a vehicle was driven through a field of maize. ?They could easily have driven along the conservation headlands, but they?ve shown no respect for the crop, flattening it by ploughing their vehicle headlong through it,? said Robert.

Neighbouring farmer Graham Clarke, of Low Swainby Farm, in Burniston, has also suffered damage to winter-sown cereal and oilseed rape. ?The poachers will always find a way in. We?ve put some new gates up, but someone told me they?d spotted seven vehicles on our land on one night,? said Graham.

The main line of defence

Deer poaching remains a significant problem in all areas. BASC spokesman Simon Clarke described it as ?the countryside?s hidden crime?.

?There are now organised gangs across the UK involved in deer poaching and keepers are at increasing risk from attack,? he said. ?There?s a growing network of contacts keeping a careful watch on all areas, so poachers are under more scrutiny than they think.

?Anyone offered black-market venison should avoid it for health reasons. There is no way of knowing how these animals are killed or how the meat has been handled. Any figures that are published are only the tip of the iceberg. This is still a major rural crime problem.?

Gamekeepers often find themselves the main line of defence. Text-alert systems have been set up in many counties to allow them to communicate with one another. In the Hambleton area, keepers undertake regular night-time patrols and provide vehicle registration details to the police. Increasingly, locals are being forced to play a policing role. Derek Cornforth said: ?We?ve suggested to the chief constable that we ought to take the law into our own hands to protect our property.? However, because police support is patchy, there are growing fears that patrols mounted by keepers could lead to violent confrontations.?

A spokesman for North Yorkshire Police said: ?Police are aware of the problems with poachers trespassing near Thirsk. Rural crime is a priority for us and we are doing all we can to address the problems. We welcome the information provided and encourage people in rural communities to continue to provide us with this intelligence.?