Professional deer poachers strike in Thetford Forest

Gangs of professional poachers have struck again in the heart of Breckland and killed an unknown number of red deer, according to the Norfolk head of Farm Watch.

The poachers, armed with high calibre rifles and night vision equipment, have even been brought refrigerated transport to take away the freshly-shot deer carcases, said Tony Bone.

In the latest incident at Weeting, near Brandon, close to the Norfolk border, farmer Robert Childerhouse said that the gang had killed deer.

'These are not chancers but are very well organised groups. They come in for a night and then do three or four estates. We know that they have taken eight to 10 deer back in a refrigerated van,' said Mr Childerhouse.

Other farmers and nearby estates have also reported incidents of deer poaching. Jim Rudderham, of Lord Iveagh's Elveden estate, said that the problem had become much more serious in the last few months. They had recently had a big red deer stag killed in savage circumstances by poachers, who had apparently used attack dogs to bring the animal down before it was knifed to death.

Mr Childerhouse, who also works for a firm of land agents in Newmarket, said that these so-called professional poachers had also struck in other parts of the Thetford Forest. In the latest incident, they had also caused 'a huge amount of crop damager as they rip-roar across the fields'.

There was a further risk to people living in isolated cottages and houses in the forest when poachers shot without regard for the consequences.

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He recognised that it was often very difficult to raise the alarm because these gangs arrived late at night or in the early morning. 'Unless you see and hear them, they're unlikely to be seen or noticed. And if they're disturbed they're off to the next farm or estate,' said Mr Childerhouse, who is also treasurer of Wayland Agricultural Society.

He had raised the issue at the latest Country Land and Business Association's regional committee and Nicola Currie, regional director, has also voiced members' concerns at regional police meetings.

'The police are very well aware of our concerns and also the scale of poaching,' she said.

Arable and outdoor pig farmer Mr Childerhouse said that the longer nights had helped poachers.

'We've had fairly full moons, so they can get out without putting on too many lights. When they do four or five farms in a hit they're getting six, eight or 10 carcases across all of those farms.

'Unfortunately, we don't know for sure exactly how many they're taking. It is only when you go out with a dog that the remains of deer are found,' he said.

Mr Bone, who had inspected the latest tyre tracks on Mr Childerhouse's family farm, said that the gang had driven vehicles off the Methwold Road and then caused considerable crop damage.

'They often bring a freezer van. They're using powerful rifles and night vision devices, so they don't need too much light. It is a fairly frightening scenario to deal with,' said Mr Bone, who is a former police officer with Norfolk Constabulary.

His concern was also echoed by Trevor Banham, who is wildlife manager for the Forestry Commission's eastern region based at Santon Downham, near Thetford. His team of five rangers had an area of about 75,000 acres of forest to cover.

'We know these are very determined people. These guys don't care.

'They're just after the deer, especially if they can use their dogs too – and if they get some venison out of it, that's extra,' he added.

But the price of venison, which had risen in the past year, was also an incentive for poachers, said Mr Banham.

As a member of FarmWatch, they would regularly forward information to help police gain intelligence. 'We'd love to catch them but when my team go out, they're told: 'Don't be confrontational.' These guys are armed and they will not want to be caught.'

On the Elveden estate, which straddles the Norfolk and Suffolk border, Mr Rudderham, said that wherever possible steps had been taken to prevent unauthorised vehicle access.

Members of the public could help by noting suspicious behaviour or strangely parked vehicles in the middle of the night.

'If we can get a number plate or even a vehicle make it will help the police build up a fuller picture,' said Mr Rudderham.

Contact Farmwatch - 0788548 7016.