“They try to intimidate you, they look for a rise from you… they’re confrontational, looking for trouble, shining lamps in your face so you cannot see anything,” says local farmer Paul (he wants to keep his surname anonymous) of the poachers who have been hitting parts of Northumberland. “I’ve had run-ins with nasty people and I think it’s time we took a stand and stopped it from happening. So that’s why I’ve joined it officially, I want to get something done about it.”
Paul is talking about Operation Checkpoint, a programme set up by Northumbria Police three years ago. Police train farmers and gamekeepers to work as rural crime volunteers – spotters and intelligence gatherers in their own neighbourhoods, who alert police about suspicious activity or crimes, the biggest being poaching.
This is not the one-for-the pot man who goes out with a hammergun and a lurcher to feed his family. It is typically starts with organised crime syndicates. We have covered poaching stories here:
“There has been intimidation against people who have approached them, landowners who have had their car keys taken off them and thrown into a field,” says Northumbria Police investigator Giles Evans. “We advocate for anyone within the Northumbria force area that they are the eyes and ears and that they don’t approach anybody and they ring the police. They record what they see, they report what they see so we can target the right areas.”
Neighbourhood Inspector Gary Neill says the force’s tactics have changed dramatically in the three years he’s been in the job.
“We’ve seen a big change in our response to rural crime,” he says. “We are investing a lot more time in the rural community and have a lot more staff. We have recruited a lot of rural crime volunteers. Tonight we’re doing an operation with them and other forces… and they’ll tell us if there’s someone poaching or up to no good.”
Heading out is Sergeant Ian Pattison, who describes the difficulty of policing such a vast county. “We’ll be dishing out radios, there’s a bit of logistics in it because of the size of the area,” he says. “Then we’ll go on to two or three in the morning depending on what the activity is like. We can sense when something is not quite right or people have been coming in the area. Sometimes it’s those last few hours then suddenly something will happen.”
Pattison says rural crime team officers patrol the areas in care looking for suspicious vehicles. Meanwhile the volunteers are “sitting up on the patches where they know maybe we’re not so familiar with saying there’s a vehicle in our area, maybe you want to come and check it out”.
“It’s not just these operations, it’s a constant stream of information,” he says of the information provided by the volunteers. “If they see something or heard something from a third party, they’ll feed it to us and we get information we might not get if we didn’t have that reach.”
Most of the poaches and criminals are not from the area, so cars registered in other towns are quite often checked.
“We do get cross-border criminality, so we get people from Durham using the A68, the main route to come in and they’ll go to places they’ve been to before so we know where the hotspots are, Pattison says. “We’re getting reports and perhaps we haven’t got the resources to be effective in covering the land we need to be covering to know exactly what’s going on so it helps us by them being out and about and maybe in the past they may have felt a bit let down by the service they had before so a lot of them when they come into training say they could either sit at home and moan about it or I can try to do something about it.”
On Paul’s patch, he’s not alone in the chilly winter night.
“Locally tonight there’s three of us out and we can cover quite a lot of ground,” he says. “The further over there’s another two out, so that’s quite a few in just a small area. We just the eyes and ears, we’re not getting involved, just reporting stuff in. Might be trivial, might not be.”
(So you’re getting support from the police?)
“Yeah, yeah… and they’re getting support from us.”
For more, call Hexham Police Station on 01914373445 and ask about Operation Checkpoint