Last week’s issue of Shooting Times carried a short piece by the new National Wildlife Crime Unit’s (NWCU) poaching officer, Gareth Cole (Opinion, 21 October). He was appointed to the position in early September to co-ordinate the unit’s poaching policy, working with the wildlife crime officers in the 43 police forces of England and Wales. He has a big job on his hands first to educate the police and civilian communication centre operators about rural life, and then to roll out a national policy that will bring rural crimes, such as poaching, higher up the forces’ list of priorities while giving landowners and keepers confidence and proof that poaching is a crime that will be taken seriously. Poaching has gone on ever since there was game for the taking but we’re not talking here about people who are helping themselves to a bird for the pot. Today’s poachers are dangerous and professional, proper criminals who often operate in gangs, across county borders and indeed the country.

Despite predictions that poaching would increase as a result of the recession, in a very unscientific ringround, few of the keepers I spoke to report a noticeable rise. In contrast, the NWCU has seen a 79 per cent increase in reports of illegal hare coursing over the past year, which is a figure that is mirrored in reports of deer poaching incidents. It is a serious problem in certain parts of the country and while some police forces have a proper strategy to deal with it — Lincolnshire police’s Operation Galileo being a good example — other unfortunate landowners, their families and their employees are enduring persistent criminal activity, violence and intimidation on their own land without any action or assistance from police forces who do not see it as a priority.

Gareth Cole is an ex-copper, so he well knows the police’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to crime in rural areas, and he is a keen Shot, too. He believes education is key to changing police attitude towards rural crimes. “It’s our intention to get cross-party backing for a national wildlife policy,” he said. “It would entail the 43 police forces of England and Wales agreeing to a standard operating procedure for wildlife crime and the roll-out of a national IT system for police communications rooms. This would enable communications officers to ask the right questions when people report crimes such as poaching, which would result in the victims getting a better and faster response. Another significant part of the policy would be the creation of a central database, held by the NWCU, so we have a more effective system of intelligence gathering that will help catch repeat offenders and provide something historical to work from when forces wish to launch individual wildlife operations.”

These are all excellent ideas, but how is Gareth, with the backing of the NWCU, proposing to educate the set-in-theirways police officers and those among them who are reluctant to get grass on their shoes when responding to rural call-outs? Everything we know of rural police forces suggests that this could be something of an uphill struggle. “Within the national wildlife policy I would like to have a best practice policy where we can introduce wildlife crimes to police recruits, so that they ‘grow up’ with it as they progress in their careers. It’s important that they are taught about it at the very early stages so that they are familiar with it right from the start. We’d like to extend it to the civilians who operate the communications rooms
too, because they are instrumental in how a crime is reported and responded to. There was a recent incident where a keeper rang the police to say that two men were digging out a badger sett on his ground. The person he spoke to in the control room answered that it wasn’t a matter for the police! This lack of knowledge is inexcusable.”

Falling confidence

Response times in rural areas have been a problem ever since the demise of the village bobby, which has led to a general lack of confidence in the police and a view that it’s sometimes more effective to take the law into your own hands. But we well know, from the almost weekly reports in Shooting Times of innocent pigeon shooters who have been wrongfully arrested, that the police can respond in double-quick time and with an astonishing show of strength when they feel inclined to do so. If only they would muster the same effort when a distraught landowner reports a pack of poachers running dogs on their land. “We have to go to all the firearms departments and teach them how to respond to these sort of incidents,” said Gareth. “The police need to be taught to think about the time of year; has the corn just been cut and therefore is the man sitting in the hedge with a gun more likely to be shooting pigeon over stubble than presenting a threat to the public? They need to be taught to think before they approach — and they must also consider that the person who is sitting in a hedge with some plastic pigeon laid out in front of him has perhaps paid rather a lot of money to be there.” In short, the police need to use their common sense, as we have highlighted in our Shooting Times Campaign for Common Sense.

There is no doubting Gareth’s passion for this huge task and he has great potential to succeed, given that he is a shooter and an ex-copper, but, like anything, budget will always be a deciding factor and he was keen in relation to this to praise BASC, the Deer Initiative and the Environment Council for their help so far. “With everybody’s co-operation, I don’t see why this won’t work,” said Gareth. “With Government backing and the commitment of all police forces to make poaching a priority, I think the gamekeeper, stalker or farmer on the ground will see a difference.”

We can help, too, by paying a little more attention to the way in which we report crimes and operate poacher-watch schemes. I spoke to Dave Dunn, head of private security firm Countrywatch UK, which specialises in offering various security services to estates and landowners who are being targeted perhaps by poachers or by saboteurs on a shoot day, to find out what advice he would give to keepers who are under persistent attack from criminals.

“When an estate hires us,” he said, “the first thing we do when we move in is to take over the night watch from thekeeper. The biggest drain on keepers is working all day and then having to spend all night protecting their land from poachers. We then try to get a group of volunteers together, give them some knowledge of the law and train them in basic surveillance skills, and work out shifts for them to take over the night watch. Ideally two or three would be available at a time.

“We also get the estate in contact with their local police, as that relationship is crucial for success, and any country-orientated policemen are great news. It’s very important that when you report a crime you note as much detail as possible. Police get demoralised if they turn up to a call and nobody has taken so much as a car registration number. They can’t do anything without information.”

Keepers, stalkers and farmers are the police’s eyes and ears on the ground, and we must be more efficient in the way we report crime. If you see poachers with firearms or dogs on your land, tell the police when you call them. You might just get the response the crime deserves.