The Deer Initiative

What we do

Tackling poaching

The Deer Initiative works with enforcement bodies, the National Wildlife Crime Unit and the Partnership against Wildlife Crime among others, to help tackle deer poaching and its links to other forms of rural crime.

The following extract is from Deer: Law and Liabilities (2nd edition) and is reproduced with the kind permission of John Thornley OBE and Charlie Parkes OBE.

The motivation behind poaching

Historically the poacher has been viewed as a romantic folk hero taking from the gentry to feed his family. To be fair, many fended off hunger with fur, fish or fowl and, to a degree, gamekeepers tolerated the ‘one for the pot’ character. Such minor losses were accepted as long as the poacher’s activities were not obvious and did not attract the boss’s attention.

Some still see poaching as a victimless rural pursuit, stocking the freezer or making a few pounds at no one’s expense. They see wild animals as being ownerless, which they are, but overlook the legal principle that rights to take them are vested in landowners and occupiers. However, commercial poachers kept the London markets stocked with all forms of game, using carriers and the rail networks to speed their unlawful gains out of the county. Their aim was purely profit.

But profit and food are not the only motivation. It is often the thrill of the chase, putting dogs to the ultimate test and evading capture that lures poachers from their beds. We knew a farmer who bred and shot pheasants on his own land, yet on many an early morning his wife would find the kitchen floor littered with pheasants following poaching trips on his cycle. The only gain was the excitement of outwitting the keeper and perhaps getting something for nothing. We have also seen a video taken by a gang of deer poachers lamping for deer with dogs and four-wheel-drive vehicles, where the commentary is highly charged with emotion and the thrill of the chase. Perhaps the law will never overcome such excitement.

Modern trends

If poaching ever had a romantic image it has disappeared from today’s country scene. The old village poacher, with a reputation as well known to the local gamekeepers as to his friends, is less evident. There is a degree of admiration for these old characters, and there is a proliferation of books describing their exploits and methods. But modern technology has influenced the way deer are poached. The modern rifle with its telescopic sight, the electric lamp and battery combination and the four-wheel-drive vehicle are the type of equipment now used to poach deer.

Poaching methods vary across the country, depending on the terrain, the species of deer and their availability. What may be a common practice in the Highlands of Scotland may be rare in the south of England. Poachers vary too; some are semi-professional and others merely go out because they fancy a bit of venison, some extra holiday money or simply the thrill of the chase. What is common to all is their total disrespect for the welfare of deer. Dependent fawns are often orphaned, killing methods are crude and carcases are never bled correctly or inspected to detect disease.

Deer poaching in the remote areas of Scotland is more likely to be done with rifles, either from the vehicle or by the poachers taking to the hill on foot. They are opportunists who know that in such areas they are difficult to detect, owing to the vastness and isolation of the landscape. The rifle is stowed discreetly in the vehicle until deer are spotted perhaps 200 or 300 metres from the roadside. They are then shot out of the vehicle window, which provides not only a good lean for the shooter but a degree of disguise. Unless the area is persistently poached, the deer will not be too alarmed at the vehicle’s presence. Even if the shot is heard it is unlikely that it can be located quickly enough to prevent the short drag of the carcase to the vehicle and escape.

Where poachers take to the hill with rifles a more traditional style is adopted. The wind, the lie of the ground and roaming sheep all have to be considered in addition to someone who may be stalking the poachers themselves. If they are disturbed the rifles will often be hidden and the poachers will lie up, keep watch and await the moment to depart or continue. If a deer is shot it is likely to be part butchered on the spot rather than risk a lengthy and arduous drag off the hill. The best cuts of venison will be loaded into a bag and quickly carried back to the vehicle or a rendezvous point. These poachers are undoubtedly in a different class from those who operate out of the more industrialised areas of the country. They will be good shots by necessity, fit and capable of good stalking techniques.

Apart from these practices in the remote Highlands, the most common method of deer poaching currently used is coursing by dogs supported by four-wheel-drive vehicles. At night, with the minimum use of a high-powered lamp to avoid detection, this cruel method can be devastatingly effective. Unless you notice vehicle tracks on your land you may never know that deer have been taken until it is too late. This practice is commonly referred to as ‘lamping’, but unlike the normal practice for vermin control, firearms are rarely used. Access is gained to land via either gateways or insecure fencing. The deer are chased at high speed and lurchers slipped whilst still on the move. The deer are coursed and dragged down, the dogs are quickly called off and the deer are dispatched. Some gangs are even less refined and simply drive their vehicles at the deer, knocking them down and causing untold suffering.

Humane dispatch is rare, with deer being crudely killed by a variety of means. They are then thrown into the vehicle without being gralloched and the poaching continues in areas where deer have not been driven into cover. We know of one gang of poachers who record their exploits on video. It is not uncommon for six or seven deer to be taken per night by this method from one estate, with all gralloching and carcase preparation done elsewhere. They have a ready market for the venison via unscrupulous dealers, the hotel trade and their private outlets. Their own freezers are often full and so are their pockets, with a tax-free income.

These gangs are well organised and will get to know the ground. On the night they may also divert police resources by reporting or creating incidents away from the poaching area.

Not all poaching of deer is quite so blatant and more subtle methods are used e.g. when a legitimate stalker shoots and takes deer over a boundary or stalks on an area owned by absentee landlords. If caught, such poachers rely on the defence that they were retrieving a wounded beast or were simply mistaken over the boundary location.

The B.S.E. crisis generated a need for traceability of animals and foodstuffs to allay public health concerns. With wild game it is not possible to develop such detailed systems and being a natural product, it is attractive to those seeking leaner, healthier meat. Whilst consumers are prepared to accept that venison is a wild product they also have a right to expect that when it comes under human control it is processed to the highest standards. Poached venison may never see a licensed game dealer or be subject to inspection and hygienic conditions. In many cases it is processed in the poacher’s outhouse and it has been known for a carcase to be left hidden in a field for several days awaiting collection.

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