Huge increase in deer poaching

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Deer poaching is becoming such a problem in some parts of the country that the RSPCA is having to mount special SAS-style operations to counter it. Recent months have seen reports of deer poaching from counties across the country - including County Durham, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Yorkshire - and one site in Norfolk is said to have suffered the loss of 50 red deer in the last month alone.

This has prompted the police to step up their activities against organised poaching gangs. The coming weeks are expected to see a rise in the poaching of deer with the increased demand for venison in the run-up to Christmas, and wildlife crime officers are on high alert.

In the West Midlands, the RSPCA is mounting a large undercover operation in Cannock Chase after the discovery of several severed deer heads - the hallmark of poachers whose only interest is in the carcass. Ian Briggs, chief inspector of the RSPCA's Special Operations Unit, said: "We are currently investigating a number of cases of deer poaching from around the country. Poaching nationally is of great concern to us because of the cruelty involved to deer. The manner of their deaths can be horrific. The people who do this can often be involved in other types of wildlife crime. This is something that we are taking very seriously and continuing to monitor."

Deer are often killed for their meat, with "drive-by" shootings from roadsides by poachers using silenced high-powered rifles or even crossbows in some areas. Other poachers kill them for "sport" - setting dogs on them and betting on the results.

In Northumbria, police are receiving reports on a weekly basis. Anti-poaching operations and spot checks are being conducted in Lancashire, and two men recently arrested near Preston on deer poaching charges are awaiting trial.

PC Duncan Thomas, wildlife officer with the Lancashire police, said, "Poachers are extremely active in the run-up to the Christmas pub and restaurant trade. Although the vast majority of venison sold is legitimate, an increasing proportion is from illegal sources. Deer poaching is definitely on the increase. We have had at least 10 deer poaching incidents in the past month, and this is only the tip of the iceberg."

Under the Hunting Act 2004, poachers can be fined up to £5,000. But poaching is a secretive business, often carried out at night and in remote locations, so prosecutions are rare. With a single carcass reaching more than £50, gangs can make hundreds of pounds a night.