Today's poachers are urban cowboys, writes Emma Haughton
"They turn up in an old transit van with their lurchers on a Sunday morning, 6ft 6in, shaved heads, armfuls of tattoos - you can spot them a mile off. But they're organised, they've got their own networks. They're in it for the money, and they have a total disregard for people and the wildlife."

Stewart Scull, gamekeeper turned gamekeeper's champion, is a man with a mission. As gamekeeping officer at the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), he is spearheading a campaign to change the public perception of poaching, and revise outmoded attitudes amongst the police, judiciary and government.

"A lot of people, including magistrates, still consider poachers to be these romantic characters nicking a few rabbits, but in many areas poaching is a commercial operation run by urban criminals. There are many burglars and drug dealers who see it as their recreation, but one they can make many thousands of pounds out of in a night." Indeed, one survey in North Yorkshire found that 80 per cent of poachers had criminal records. Gamekeepers and police wildlife liaison officers (WLOs) say many come from urban and mining areas, where poaching techniques have been refined down the generations.

"We catch a lot from south Wales," says Simon Lester, a Gloucester gamekeeper of 20 years. "There's a tradition of poaching in mining areas, but whereas once they would be out to make a few bob and feed themselves, now they make big money."

A survey from the BASC shows that in the last five years there has been a 50 per cent increase in poaching using dogs and lamps, particularly in the west, where large deer populations have presented an attractive alternative to beef blighted by the BSE scare. Hare coursing has also doubled, along with a rise in the theft of reared game, usually young pheasant chicks.

Modern poaching methods are crude but effective. "Lampers" shine powerful spotlights from car roofs to dazzle prey such as deer, which are then seized by dogs and finished off by poachers with hammers or sticks. Salmon poachers often use gas to deoxygenate the pools and kill the fish. "It destroys everything," says Mr Lester, "That's what is so repulsive. They just don't care about what they're doing."

Four-wheel drives, night vision, false number plates - most poachers are equipped with everything they need to hunt effectively and escape detection.

Gambling is often even more lucrative than game. Police in Cambridgeshire, Essex and Suffolk have launched an operation to combat gangs of up to 100 people arriving from London to bet on illegal hare coursing. And live badgers fetch up to pounds 400; badger-baiters dig a pit, send the dogs in, and bet on which will do the most damage. Mr Lester, who tries to boost a fragile population of hares through land management and predator control, finds his efforts thwarted by poachers who pick off the young hares. According to chief inspector John Thornley, WLO in Derbyshire and author of the anti-poaching bible Fair Game, deer poachers inflict tremendous cruelty: one in four injured deer gets away, often to face a slow and painful death. But it's not just wildlife that suffers; vehicles and dogs devastate crops, farmhouses are burgled, agricultural machinery goes missing.

Worse still is the intimidation that meets anyone who tries to stop them. Several years ago a gamekeeper was shot through the chest with a crossbow; others have had their houses wrecked and vehicles damaged. A Dorset keeper who brought a gang to justice found his Labrador's skin nailed to the door.

For some, it all gets too much. One of Mr Lester's three serious fracas resulted in his own court appearance for bodily harm and criminal damage. "When you're out your adrenaline is going; if you've got men shooting at you with bits of shattered steel from catapults, tempers do get frayed."

Prosecuting the poachers is difficult. Some gamekeepers estimate that 75 per cent of poaching goes undetected, but even when discovered it is not easy to bring the perpetrators to justice. "Even when I catch them red-handed, it's getting harder to get police to the incident in time who are prepared to get out of the car," says Mr Lester. Those who do get out of their cars invariably find themselves presented with false identities, or claims that the suspects were out walking the dog. And when a case does get to court, magistrates are often lenient.

Despite this, the BASC is making headway, establishing Poacherwatch schemes with 14 constabularies to raise awareness among police officers, while a national system of Farmwatch schemes has also helped cut down on poaching on farm land. But gamekeepers feel there's a long way to go.

"We get an awful lot of bad press and not much credit for what we do," says Mr Lester. "We are looking after the countryside and trying to combat this totally destructive problem. If traditional shoots stop being viable, the future for the countryside will be bleak."