New breed of poacher with no fear of justice

In Dorset, thugs armed with lurchers and screwdrivers are killing deer for kicks. Mary Braid reports
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AT DUSK in a deserted Dorset lane, PC Mike Davis scours the countryside for wild sika deer which emerge from the woods at about this time to graze in open fields under cover of darkness.

"That's where the two stags were dumped with their heads hacked off," he said, pointing to the cottage on the left from his car window. Its occupants were understandably upset when they discovered the bloody and mutilated carcasses on their doorstep.

In the past few months, ramblers, walkers and estate managers have stumbled upon similar horrific scenes. Twelve headless stags have recently been found in the countryside around the Isle of Purbeck, home to more than 1,000 deer. The local wisdom is that there are more out there waiting to be found.

PC Davis, Wareham's countryside and wildlife officer, is sickened by the incidents. He believes he is dealing with a new breed of poacher - who kills not for venison but for kicks. He has no explanation for the new trend. The heads, it seems, are not being sold on to rich clients whose country houses are complete except for the embarrassing gap where a stag's head should be. If the heads are being displayed anywhere, it is above the mantelpieces of humbler homes. For the word in local pubs is that at closing time men are inviting back their mates to see their handiwork.

"It's a case of mine is bigger than yours," said PC Davis, who worries that the trend reflects the audacity of men who know the police are increasingly ill-equipped to catch and prosecute them.

The trophy killings have prompted disgusted local people to join Operation Mongoose, a fledgling police and community watch scheme designed to protect deer and prevent rural crime. Every night, teams patrol the countryside, hiding out in cold, deserted backroads and relaying back suspicious activity to police headquarters by mobile phone. Locations are given using special grid references, because the poachers scan the airwaves for police messages. Local teams are under strict instruction to leave confrontation to the mobile police night unit.

"It's war," said the scheme's secretary, a pensioner who prefers to remain anonymous. There has been considerable intimidation from local poachers. "I've been about a bit, but the terrible things these men have done makes even me feel sick." He laughs at the traditional image of the poacher as a poor peasant stealing just enough venison to feed his starving kids. "I think what we are seeing here is the same mentality which governs pit- bull fighting, and bear and badger baiting."

For most of the volunteers, the latest trend sharpens the longstanding fear of poachers, who traditionally strike between midnight and dawn. In the past few years, some have begun driving their vehicles straight at the deer to bring them down. But more typically, they blind the beasts with powerful lamps and while they stand mesmerised, set silent lurchers upon them. The dogs launch a ferocious attack, ripping the deer apart: the end is agonisingly long and the final dispatch graceless: the poachers usually complete the job with a screwdriver stab to the neck or a brick over the head.

"The appalling screaming of deer at night is often the only way we know that the poachers are out," said PC Davis. If the deer are lucky in the latest modification of ancient practice, they will be dead before the head is hacked off.

The fact that 12 headless deer have raised horror of deer poaching to a new high is no surprise. But there are claims that police and volunteers have fewer weapons than they once did to combat the poachers. In the1980s, collaboration between Wareham police and volunteers led to successful prosecutions. But displacement of the illegal hunters to neighbouring areas seems to be the best the current scheme can hope for.

Roger McKinlay, district forester with the Forestry Commission and expert on poachers, was part of the 1980s schemes, once seen as a model for other areas. But it is two years since PC Davis required his services as an on-the-scene expert. The men say the law now requires a higher standard of forensic tests; making the gathering of evidence prohibitively expensive. Cases are difficult to prove, and they claim that the Crown Prosecution Service is less likely to proceed with prosecutions. PC Davis says that inquiries are time-consuming and hard to resolve.

In short, poaching is not a priority in an age obsessed with crime statistics and clear-up rate league tables. "They know it is easy again," said PC Davis. "Sometimes you stop them with the back of their car covered in blood, two lurchers in tow and powerful lamps in the boot and they laugh at you because they know that, unless the deer carcasses are there, there is nothing you can do."

Mr McKinlay claims that attacks on deer are so low down the political priority list that they only gain any worth if the poacher's van damages a farmer's gate during a getaway.

Mr McKinlay is passionate about deer. His main motivation, he says, is to combat cruelty. But he admits that local estates may suffer if the new trend continues. Wild deer belong to the owner of the land they graze on, but no landowner, Mr McKinlay insists, gets rich on deer. Like PC Davis and the volunteers, he is not squeamish about legal deer culling - the end, they argue, is swift and necessary - when hunters can pay as much as pounds 800 for the landowner's permission to shoot a selected stag and take its head as a trophy. The price on the stag's head may be all there is to offset the costs of deer management, insists Mr McKinlay. "It is a delicate balancing act. The economic effect of taking big stags' heads could have a catastrophic effect on estates."

The police and the night shift volunteers prefer to concentrate on their moral repugnance for the new poachers. "It used to be poachers illegally taking animals," said PC Davis. "Now it's animals illegally taking deer."