Lampers are the 'thugs of the countryside'

Investigation: The illegal night-time pursuit of foxes, badgers and deer is growing - and the human casualties are mounting, too

David Randall,James Burleigh
Sunday 03 October 2004 00:00

Lamping, the night-time shooting of animals with the aid of strong spotlights that has, in the past two weeks, led to the death of one boy and serious injuries to another, is widespread and is increasingly used as a cover for illegal persecution of wildlife, an investigation by The Independent on Sunday has discovered.

Lamping, the night-time shooting of animals with the aid of strong spotlights that has, in the past two weeks, led to the death of one boy and serious injuries to another, is widespread and is increasingly used as a cover for illegal persecution of wildlife, an investigation by The Independent on Sunday has discovered.

No national study of the activity has been compiled, but the IoS has learnt of lampers involved in poaching deer, shooting badgers or baiting them with dogs, killing hares and the indiscriminate shooting of foxes and rabbits beyond what might be deemed 'pest control'. "Illicit lampers," said Barry Fryer of the RSPCA, "are the thugs of the countryside."

The reports come from North Wales to Essex, and the South Downs to Lancashire, and what emerges is what many describe as a "redneck culture" of people going into the countryside to blast away at anything that moves.

One email bulletin board, AirGunBBS, has dozens of messages from lampers using such sign-ons as "rabbit blaster" swapping tips about where to shoot, and giving details of kills and equipment, including silencers.

Lamping is the use of spotlights to transfix wild animals in a powerful beam, and then shooting, or deploying dogs, to kill them. Farmers and landowners do it as a means of controlling foxes or rabbits. Most adhere to a code of conduct, have licensed firearms, keep police informed of where and when they will be out, stay well away from roads or homes and shoot only foxes, rats and rabbits.

But there is a sub-culture of gun enthusiasts whose lamping ranges from the legal, but bloodthirsty, to the criminal. At the milder end are those who regard lamping not as pest control but as sport. One entry on AirGunBBS read: "Would welcome any lamping tips at all from you experienced night-time bunny bashers ...", and another boasted of killing 28 in a night. Hares are also a target.

But badgers, a protected species, are the most worrying quarry of illicit lampers - either shot or hunted down by lurcher dogs trained to run down the beam of a lamp. Last week, a farmer in West Wales found a freshly dead badger hanging near his home. A post-mortem examination confirmed it had been killed, probably by dogs, after midnight.

And then there are badger-baiters. Last Tuesday, Leslie Fowell of Rock Ferry, Merseyside was jailed for a year at Wirral magistrates court for eight offences under the Protection of Badgers Act. He had photographs and videos showing dogs attacking badgers under the glare of lamps.

Badger groups in north-east Essex, Buckinghamshire and Kirklees report lampers killing badgers. Warwickshire's say it is "increasingly a problem", and Mid-Sussex Badger Group report seeing badgers dying from septicaemia after being shot.

Deer are a target for some of the more organised gangs, and the RSPCA's special operations unit has recently concluded an investigation into a group that was "heavily into wildlife crime, including lamping deer, foxes and, occasionally, badgers". This gang was seen to go out nearly a dozen strong, with 13 dogs, walkie-talkies and full lighting rigs on three vehicles.

Terry Spamer, chief inspector with the unit, said: "Most people we investigate are going onto land without the owner's permission, in four-wheel drives, and once they go across country they are very difficult to track."

There are also reports, from Essex and elsewhere, of lampers shooting near roads. Two weeks ago, a boy of 12 walking his dog was shot in the head at Castleford, West Yorkshire. Just days before, Byron Evans, aged 13, was shot dead by lampers near Totnes in Devon, and in April, Trevor Lawson, a wildlife journalist out watching badgers and barn owls in Buckinghamshire, was shot and seriously injured by Anthony Burns, who was lamping.

Such incidents are rare, according to Simon Clarke of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, which produces a code of practice for lampers. He says: "I have never come across illegal lamping." The RSPCA, badger groups, golf clubs, councils such as Devon, police in counties such as Lincolnshire, would all disagree - as would many country dwellers.

At the Liberal Democrat conference, David Jones, of a Montgomeryshire hunt, told a meeting that lamping was encouraging a new type of "countryside cowboy".

A fox caught in the headlights

In the distance, a pair of eyes flashed in the beam of a high-powered lamp. Initially, the animal's identity was impossible to guess, but as the light ranged across the moonlit field, the shape of a fox became apparent.

It trotted towards the light mounted on top of the 4X4. An electronic device mimicking the squeaks of a rabbit in distress was coaxing the fox ever closer. When it was 75ft away, the fox turned slightly, offering a larger target. A muffled crack rang out from the back of the pick-up. After a quick search, the body of a dog fox was brought out. Robert Bucknell, a 55-year-old farmer and author of Foxing with Lamp and Rifle, held up the corpse. After many decades of shooting, Mr Bucknell is the acceptable face of lamping.

He has permission from landowners to shoot, and covers about 3,000 acres of farmland around his Essex home. He said: "Farmers who have free-range pig, chickens or sheep can lose so much to the fox."

But he is all too aware of illegal lampers and poachers: "People have been spotted shooting into fields from the road as they drive along." While he said there was not a big problem with poaching or illegal lamping, he admitted it was "nigh on impossible to police".

He told of a friend lamping who saw two sets of eyes at the edge of a field: "The eyes moved a bit and the guy looked through his scope but wouldn't pull the trigger because he couldn't identify them. As he was peering through his scope, he got the shock of his life. Two boys suddenly stood up."

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