The word poaching normally conjures up images of trophy hunters stalking lions in Africa or the illegal trade in elephant ivory and tiger skins. But what many people don’t realise is that poaching—the illegal shooting, trapping or capturing of wild or semi-wild animals—also takes place on British soil.
In the UK, poaching is classed as a wildlife crime and is defined as killing or taking a bird, mammal or fish without legal right or consent from the landowner. Deer, fish, especially carp, salmon and trout, and hares are the most commonly poached animals, while game birds including pheasant and grouse, and rare species such as freshwater mussels are also targeted.
Due to its underground nature, it is tricky to say whether or not poaching is on the rise, but ‘there is plenty of intelligence’, says Chief Inspector Martin Sims, Head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), to suggest that the crime ‘is rife throughout the countryside’.
Poaching blights rural communities, resulting in serious loss of income for shooting estates and fisheries. But it is not simply a matter of property and theft; it also threatens public safety, undermines conservation efforts and causes major animal welfare issues.
Britain’s modern day poachers bear scant resemblance to those of yesteryear. Long gone is the image of the romantic folk hero, taking home ‘one for the pot’, while silently sticking up two figures at the landed gentry. These days, poachers operate in gangs; rampaging through the countryside in 4x4s; armed with guns, dogs, snares and poisons, driven by greed and the thrill of the chase.
‘Put it this way, they are not the sort of people you would like to have over for dinner,’ says Alastair Boston, Deer Liaison Officer Northern England at the Deer Initiative. ‘They are often involved in other sorts of rural crimes, such as sheep rustling and badger baiting.’
For these individuals, the UK’s countryside offers rich pickings. On the black market, a deer carcass can change hands for £200, while a large live carp can bring in £12,000 and a string of freshwater pearls can fetch up to £15,000. Occasionally, antlers from poached deer end up for sale on eBay.
However, sometimes poachers don’t even retrieve the animal’s carcass. In the case of hare-coursing, the perpetrators cash in by gambling on the dogs they use, while those who engage in a sadistic new type of poaching dubbed ‘psycho-poaching’ are simply motivated by the sick thrill of watching animals suffer.
‘These people see animals as commodities and are seeking to make a profit or betting on the dogs,’ adds Martin. ‘They tend to have criminal records and are usually involved in other criminal activities, including aggravated burglary and violence.’
Cruelty to animals
Poaching usually takes place under the cover of darkness, and modern poachers have various methods at their disposal. One of the most common techniques is lamping, which involves stunning the animal with a bright light and then setting dogs on it. Alternatively, thermal imaging equipment may be used to locate an animal before shooting it with a rifle or even a crossbow. During the rutting season, poachers may put up nets in the hopes that stags become ensnared in them.
What all these methods have in common is the unimaginable suffering they inflict. Crossbow barbs and gunshots often only wound animals, causing them to die slow, painful deaths. When dogs are used, the terrified quarry is hunted to exhaustion before being savaged. In the case of psycho-poaching, the episodes are usually captured on camera phones by thugs driving alongside in a van or 4×4, who then boast about their exploits on social media.
According to Martin, ‘long dogs’ are often bred and brutalised specifically for this purpose: ‘They use lurchers or greyhounds that have been crossed with something like a Rottweiler or Doberman to make them more aggressive.’
Alastair is clear that these activities contrast sharply with legitimate hunting. Talking specifically in regard to deer poaching in England, he explains: ‘Hunting is carried out during the right season by a highly trained stalker with a legal firearm, the landowner’s permission and a licence from Natural England. A certain number of deer are culled following a census, but poachers are indiscriminate, often killing pregnant or nursing hinds (female deer) and leaving behind suckling calves to die.’
Hazards to humans
Poaching also endangers people, beyond the damage it does to landowners’ property. Firstly, anyone who happens to get in the way of individuals discharging firearms or unleashing dangerous dogs at night is in immediate physical danger, while consuming meat from poached animals also presents a hazard because it won’t have undergone any official health checks. While the majority of hotels, restaurants and meat outlets will verify the source of the meat they sell, others may just be tempted to accept cheap produce via the backdoor.
‘You can’t guarantee the quality of poached meat as you don’t know how it has been handled before it has entered the food chain,’ explains Martin. ‘Poached meat and fish is often kept in conditions that are none too appetising. For example, in one case I worked on deer carcasses were hung next to toxic chemicals.’
Given the violent nature of the criminals involved in poaching, gamekeepers, landowners and witnesses may also be subjected to threats and intimidation, causing the crime to go unreported and hampering police efforts to crack down on it.
Some forms of poaching pose a wider threat to the environment or wildlife habitat. For instance, certain unlicensed or unscrupulous fishing clubs can pollute rivers if they engage in the underhand tactic of transferring fish from one body of water to another to reel in new members with the promise of prize specimens to be caught.
Working with the Environment Agency and the Angling Trust, the NWCU has uncovered cases where a single carp weighing up to 40lb has been poached from waters and then photographed to promote several different fishing clubs.
‘Besides being theft, it can present a biohazard because if a fish carries a disease, it can contaminate the waters, having a detrimental effect on the ecosystem,’ he says.
Another type of poaching activity that is a big concern for environmentalists is pearl hunting. Scotland’s freshwater mussels, which can live for more than 100 years, are on the brink of extinction due to exploitation for the precious shiny things that occasionally form inside their shells.
Up to half the world’s remaining population of freshwater mussels is believed to be found in Angus, the Cairngorms and North West Scotland, where they are an important part of the habitat of rivers. Poachers prize open the shells in search of pearls, killing the creatures within, and leaving the shells discarded on the riverbanks.
Thankfully, due to joint initiatives between conservation NGOs and the NWCU such as Project Poacher, awareness of poaching is growing and more and more poachers are being brought to justice.
The penalties, which in Alastair’s opinion are ‘not high enough’ usually include fines, as well as seizure of vehicles and dogs, although poachers do occasionally receive custodial sentences.
In January five people were arrested following two-and-a-half year police sting into poaching on Exmoor, while two men in North Yorkshire were recently convicted for illegally killing a deer and a rabbit respectively.
Martin and Alastair urge anyone who suspects that poaching is going on to contact the local police force or the NWCU and not to approach the individuals directly. In addition, the possession of illegal firearms and long dogs should also provoke suspicion.
‘Criminals are more likely to be stopped travelling in a vehicle at 2am, so they often hide the carcass and come back for it in the morning, so if you are out walking in the countryside at the weekend, look out for deer carcasses stashed away behind bracken,’ says Alastair. ‘Also, be alert if you are offered venison (or salmon or trout) and you’re not sure where it came from.’
Unfortunately, the police are under-resourced when it comes to tackling poaching and other forms of wildlife crime, but through greater public awareness and reporting, conservationists, gamekeepers and wildlife lovers can begin to fight back against these despicable crimes.
Sadly, wildlife poaching is a present and persistent threat across the planet. If you’d like to know more about the animals that are left behind as a result of such cruel killings, why not watch of our Wild Orphans series, now available on the Love Nature App.