By Ben O’Rourke
It looks like your typical English countryside with fields, hedges and woods stretching far in all directions. But this seemingly sleepy East Midlands region is being terrorised by poachers.
Slicing the area in two is the A1, which allows easy access for gangs of young adults in four-wheel drives with dogs and weapons, who drive off the motorway then up and down the narrow lanes looking for something to kill.
“These people are going out and non-selectively just wiping out anything they come across – deer, young deer, badgers,” says Frank, a farmer who doesn’t want us to use his real name or say where he lives. “Anything that shines an eye back in a field at night time.”
The extent and randomness of the slaughter makes wildlife management and conservation efforts difficult, says Frank. It also gives people in their business a bad name, he says, as the public generally see the killing of all wild animals as the same thing, whether it’s pest control or abuse.
The poaching is not a new problem, but Frank and fellow farmer Tom say it’s becoming unbearable, with as many as four gangs targeting the same field in less than hour during peak times.
Much of what they do is filmed and posted on Facebook, in closed groups that screen you before you can join. Some videos do get out.
“It’s a celebration for them,” says Tom. “Backing four-wheel drives into partridge pens and pheasants… gutting deer and hanging them up. They love it and they love the fact that they’re not getting caught.”
“A lot of it is about showing the dogs off,” adds Frank, “Or whether it’s more a competition for friends with dogs – who can get what. But there’s images there of badgers, deer with its throat slit. I’ve seen videos of deer being stamped to death and they just laugh about it.”
It’s become more than just thrills and kills, thanks to technology. While some of the gangs are out in the fields destroying wildlife, a livestream is eagerly watched by people placing bets on which dog makes the kill.
“They’ll run a book,” says Tom. “I’m told £5,000 will change hands on a decent badger dig at night. They’ll get it all set up and their mates will be in a pub and it’ll be on a laptop.”
While Frank, Tom and their friends have been organising patrols at night to deter the poachers, confronting them if necessary, many locals are turning a blind eye.
“There’s farmers in the county who’ll shut their curtains and pretend it’s not happening,” Frank says. “But then be moaning about the crop damage.”
“Well some don’t like confrontation,” Tom adds. “You can understand it, some are single people on their own, others have got young families.”
They both say confrontations can get tense and they’ve had narrow escapes. Gang members point guns at them though open windows, others are armed with crossbows. They believe it’s just a matter of time before someone is seriously injured. Perhaps then, police might step up their own action.
“A farmer who’s approached these people, come across them by chance on his land, what’s he going to do if he feels threatened?” Frank asks. “You can only push someone into a corner so far before they lash out.”
8 December 20221 update: Rural groups are urging peers in the House of Lords to support an anti poaching bill aimed at illegal dogwork. The proposals will give the police and the courts more powers to disrupt people from using lurchers on hares and other wildlife. The amendment to the new crime bill would increase penalties for illegal dogwork, allow the courts to disqualify offenders from owning or keeping dogs, and allow the police to recover kennelling costs for dogs that have been seized. The Countryside Alliance, National Farmers’ Union and the Country Land & Business Association are behind the move.