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Police seize car as drones take to Norfolk’s skies for the first time in hunt for hare coursers

PUBLISHED: 18:43 16 September 2017 | UPDATED: 10:02 17 September 2017

A police drone takes to the air as Operation Galileo gets under way. Picture: Ian Burt

A police drone takes to the air as Operation Galileo gets under way. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2017

Galileo used his telescope to scan the stars. Now police working on an operation named after him use drones to scan the Fens for hare coursers.

An officer patrols the lanes on a quad bike. Picture: Ian Burt An officer patrols the lanes on a quad bike. Picture: Ian Burt

Almost as soon as the drone buzzed into the early morning skies today, it was earning its keep. A blue estate car hurtled down the lanes in a cloud of dust and the hunt was on.

As officers fanned out around the fields near Downham Market minutes earlier, they clocked the grubby Subaru carrying people and dogs. The car sped off as its occupants clocked them.

Sgt Danny Leach, who runs Norfolk police’s new drone unit, sent his aircraft high above the fields as marked and unmarked units set off after the car.

With officers unwilling to match its speed down narrow lanes and blind bends, risking a collision, the drone had eyes on as it raced towards the A134.

Officers launch a drone during Operation Galileo. Picture: Chris Bishop Officers launch a drone during Operation Galileo. Picture: Chris Bishop

As they lost sight of the Subaru, Sgt Leach and Special Sgt Tom Render landed the drone, packed it in their Focus and joined units searching the roads for it.

As they reached the main road, the radio provided a running commentary as those inside decided to dump the motor and get on their toes.

“They’ve abandoned the car in a timber yard, they’ve all got out on foot with their dogs,” said Sgt Leach.

“What we’re trying to do is get ourselves to the location and put another drone up.”

The car seized by police after it was abandoned at a timber yard. Picture: Chris Bishop The car seized by police after it was abandoned at a timber yard. Picture: Chris Bishop

The mud-splattered Subaru sat in a corner of the yard, as customers began arriving to buy wood for weekend DIY projects.

A worker pointed out which way the people in the car went as they hoofed it across country.

Sgts Leach and Render shinned up a bank with the drone and hared across a muddy field to get their eyes back in the sky.

“I’ve got ‘em,” says Sgt Leach, as the drone whizzed up to 400ft giving a grandstand view of the fields beneath.

Rural crime officers taking part in today's operation. Picture: Ian Burt Rural crime officers taking part in today's operation. Picture: Ian Burt

“I’ve got ‘em on camera, they’re on a footpath between the A134 and Chapel Road.”

Another officer sighted them following a line of telegraph poles with their dogs. At first, the gang seemed to have melted away.

But police later said three men and a woman had had their details taken and further evidential enquiries were in progress.

Items left in the Subaru suggested its occupants had baled out in a hurry, as officers gave it the once-over. Checks revealed they had grounds to seize it.

“It’s got no insurance and it’s got a marker for hare coursing in Cambridgeshire,” said one. “It’s failed to stop and we’ve seized the car, so it’s hindered their operation.”

As officers assembled little over an hour earlier, Sgt Mark Askham distributed maps and briefed them on the day’s tactics.

Units would plot up around the area, using drones for the first time to search for suspicious activity.

“This is our first time out for Operation Galileo this season,” he said. “There were 18 arrests last year, 10 of which were charged to court. We seized 29 dogs and there were vehicle seizures.”

Similar operations were getting under way in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, as the dozen or so Norfolk officers took to their marked and unmarked vehicles, which included a 4x4, quad bike and dune buggy.

Intelligence suggests Norfolk is used as a training ground to get lurchers and greyhounds up to speed for coursing matches with big money betting in its neighbouring counties.

Either way, the flat Fens are ideal terrain for the now illegal bloodsport once the crops have been harvested and the land ploughed up for the winter.

Last year officers were called out 168 times to reports of hare coursing.

Last week there reports of gangs operating in Southery, Feltwell, Welney, Coston and Titchwell according to Norfolk’s Operation Randall rural crime team.

But the Fens are also an ideal hunting ground for the latest drones, which command a wide field of view from hundreds of feet up above the flat sprawl of beet and barley fields.

And they provide high-resolution images, which give officers an unparalleled live view of what’s going on below their cameras.

Police plan to send their tiny rotors buzzing on regular sorties this winter, in the hope of making Norfolk a no-go area for hare coursing.

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