Poaching is often portrayed as a battle of wills between loveable rogues and diligent gamekeepers but it is a massive 21st century problem in rural Staffordshire. Justine Halifax reports.
While poaching has been around since the first days of private land ownership, crooks who once used bows and arrows, traps, snares, slings and spears are now armed with shotguns and rifles.
It is a huge problem in Staffordshire with farmers being targeted up to three times a week and gangs of poachers from the north trying to take deer – worth £200 each on the black market – from Cannock Chase’s vast open spaces.
So acute are the concerns that members of the county’s Rural Police Liaison Group, which gathers intelligence on criminals killing and maiming wildlife, are sending teams of volunteers to stand guard at farms suffering at the hands of the raiders.
Group founder and chairman Faye Burton said: “People go on about anti-social behaviour in town and city centres, but we have it every day in the countryside.
“Farmers getting too close to poaching gangs are having their lives, homes and livelihoods threatened.
“I’ve had death threats for trying to tackle the problem and farmers’ fields have been torched and gamekeepers attacked.
“Gamekeepers out at night are being surrounded in woods by gangs armed with rifles, so understandably they do not argue. A bullet whizzed past my ear when I was on Cannock Chase one night. It’s an horrendous situation.
“Cannock Chase is a beautiful place in the day but after 6pm it changes completely as its herd of wild deer makes it a prime target for poachers.”
The RSPCA and Country Land and Business Association (CLA) are also concerned.
Chief Insp Ian Briggs, of the RSPCA’s special operations unit, said: “People have this idea that poaching is just a little old man getting a few rabbits for the pot from under the gamekeeper’s nose, but it’s not.
“A lot of the time, it involves gangs armed with firearms and dogs which are specifically bred for taking down game.
“It’s a massively serious problem from the RSPCA’s point of view.
“The people who do this like killing wildlife and the fact they can make money on the side is a bonus.”
CLA regional director Caroline Bedell said: “Modern poachers have scant regard for the countryside and no regard for the wildlife they injure or the land they destroy.”
* The threats and violence
The roll call of violence sounds like something from the worst excesses of Britain’s inner-cities.
But gamekeepers in rural Staffordshire say they take their lives in their hands every time they go to work. One gamekeeper, who would only speak on condition he remained anonymous, said his confrontations with ruthless armed poachers had left him needing hospital treatment.
He had also been threatened with being shot and been warned his home would be burned down, he said.
“When I go to work, my wife doesn’t know if I’ll be coming back,” the gamekeeper said. “I’ve been gamekeeping for 30 years and poaching is worse now than ever – and it’s getting worse. I’ve been threatened and attacked on several occasions and put into hospital once.
"I have been kicked, punched, hit with sticks, had my eye split open, had a gun pointed at me and gang members threatened to shoot me and burn down my home.
“All I’ve been doing is my job, asking them what they were doing on someone else’s land. They age from teenagers to pensioners and come in groups of seven to 10 people.
“They are deer poaching, going after them with dogs, shooting them and killing them with knives, shooting pheasants and chasing hares with dogs. People in the towns think poaching is that old fashioned notion of ‘just one for the pot’ and it’s little old men but it’s not.
“These gangs will do anything for money and come mob-handed in case they are approached. A lot come from the north because Staffordshire is a hotspot for poaching.”
The man, who has spent the last 13 years working in the Stafford area, said: “Sometimes I’ve thought ‘Is it worth it?’ But this is my job and my home so why should I let them run me out?”