Wildlife is easy prey for poacher gangs
Picture the scene. It is the dead of the night, pitch black and not a single person in sight.
But then, a group of men pull up in a van armed with a dog and they head into a deserted field. When they get to the middle they pull out a huge lamp, turning it on and shining the light across the vast space until they hit the jackpot they are looking for – two small circles of colour.
But a number of individuals have been prosecuted for various forms of rural crime including badger baiting and hunting wild mammals with dogs.
In November 2013, three men avoided an immediate jail sentence after being convicted of offences related to badger baiting.
Jake Berry, Rhys Dwyer and Daniel Fry were carrying a fox's tail, a tomahawk axe and an air rifle to commit a 'barbaric and medieval' crime.
The three men, who denied doing anything wrong, were stopped by police and arrested after a member of the public reported having seen the men with dogs entering private woodland in Essington.
When police arrived at the Landywood Lane scene they saw two men lying on the ground – one of whom had their hand down a hole.
The gang was found guilty of badger digging, attempting to take a badger and interfering with badger setts after a trial at Stafford Magistrates Court.
The men were sentenced to eight months in jail, suspended for 18 months. They were also handed an 18-month community order and told to complete 120 hours' unpaid work.
Berry, of Stubby Lane, Wednesfield; Fry, of Merrick Road, Wednesfield; and Dwyer, of Shepherd Drive, Willenhall, were all also banned from keeping dogs for two years and fined £480
Chairman of the bench Cynthia Tipper said the offences were serious.
Meanwhile, in July 2013, three men from Stoke hunted and killed a deer on Cannock Chase.
They wore dark camouflage clothing and headed out on to the Chase with four hunting dogs, knives and lamps.
The men were fined at Stafford Magistrates Court after admitting two charges of hunting a rabbit and hunting a deer with dogs.
James Morgan, James Harvey and Kyle Rodgers had to pay £183 for each offence, as well as court costs of more than £2,000. Under the law, a person can be fined up to £5,000 for illegal hunting.
The men were snared after a police crackdown following concerns over poaching at Cannock Chase.
In 2012, birds of prey in Staffordshire were found to have been poisoned.
Two buzzards in the Lichfield area tested positive for aldicarb – an insecticide used on agricultural crops. A hedgehog was also been found poisoned in the district.
At the time the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds called for an end to these 'sickening' attacks on vulnerable wildlife.
However, no-one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the poisoning.
Police say criminals travel from across the UK to poach and maim deer and game in Staffordshire.
They have found a wild rabbit, hare or fox.
Pc Pete Clarke, a wildlife crime officer with Staffordshire Police, said: "Wildlife crime is a bit of an unknown quantity really.
"There are so many animals over such a widespread area.
"We are certain these things are going on every night. Some stuff just doesn't get reported to us."
Pc Clarke explained how lamping was widespread in the 1960s but is just as popular again now.
Pc Clarke continued: "Lamping is not illegal as long as the person doing it has permission to do so. There are people who are out there lamping illegally while trespassing but there are also people who are lamping legally and commiting no crime. Those who go lamping have a great, big lamp and go into the middle of a field.
"Then they shine it all across the field. They are looking for rabbits, hares or foxes. They use a great big 12-volt car battery powered lamp. When the light hits an animal it shines off their eyes and is a bit like seeing cat's eyes on the road.
"The animal will stay still. They will then either shoot the animal or send a dog to kill it. People usually do it so they can eat the animal."
He said the practice of lamping occurs often in areas such as Penkridge, Wombourne and Lapley.
As well as lamping, the police know that other wildlife crime is going on under their noses such as poaching and badger baiting. Wildlife crime is defined as the buying, selling, harming or disturbing of wild animals that are protected by the law.
Pc Clarke, who has been a wildlife crime officer for three years, continued: "A lot of people simply do these things for the thrill of blood sports.
"There is a group of nasty individuals that commit these offences. Most are known for violence or have been done for possessing weapons in the past."
Poaching is a common practice that occurs on Cannock Chase. Pc Clarke said: "Poaching involves the illegal hunting, killing or capturing of wild animals. Dogs are usually used in poaching.
"People will poach rabbits and deer and game birds. Poaching laws date back to the 18th century. Some animals are shot, some stolen and some are stolen to be eaten.
"Poaching happens a lot on Cannock Chase. Poachers will use a van or a hatchback car to smuggle the animals into. They don't care, they just bung the animal in the back."
Badger baiting is also a problem in the area. Baiting, a blood sport, involves putting a badger up against a number of dogs in an 'arena'.
Pc Clarke explained: "It's a spectator sport and people will bet on it. A badger will fight to the death. They are very aggressive animals when pushed. Dogs will lose against badgers so the badgers will have their legs broken so they aren't at full strength."
During a fight, spectators will bet on how long the badger will live for, which dog will finally kill it and even which dogs will survive the fight.
For the fight to happen, the badger has to be caught first. A badger set is located and a dog, usually a small terrier, is put down a hole and it will push the badger so it comes out the other side of the tunnel.
Pc Clarke said: "Sometimes the hole can go as deep as 20ft down. Badger sets are protected under the law. Badger baiting can happen in fields or people will take the badger away and do it in a back garden."
Hi-tech methods are used by the police to catch criminals in the act such as drones. The aerial camera, which is just two feet wide, is able to fly 800ft into the air.
Images are then sent in real-time back to a screen viewed by police officers on the ground, who are then able to locate the hunters who have no idea they are being tracked.
Another form of wildlife crime sees wild birds targeted. Thin nets are draped across trees to catch smaller birds or eggs are stolen from nests and sold on, quite often abroad.
But far more extreme actions are carried out by criminals at a quarry in Staffordshire where peregrine falcons nest and raise their young chicks every spring. Staffordshire Police carries out Operation Edge at Saredon Quarry in Shareshill every February or March to catch them.
Pc Clarke said: "People will use abseiling equipment to get down to the nests. That's how far they will go to get what they want. They either steal the eggs or destroy the nests. This is usually done by pigeon fanciers as falcons will kill pigeons.
"Another common method is to lace a pigeon on its back with poison. It is then flown across the site and obviously the falcon will kill it and take it back the nest. The falcon will itself die due to the poison.
"With wildlife crime we act a lot of the time on intelligence. The public will ring in to say they've seen a group of men with dogs go into the woods with a spade. It's such a difficult crime to keep on top of. We are heavily reliant on the public."
With many people unaware that such age-old crimes are still taking place in our picturesque countryside, the officers are facing an uphill battle literally in the dark.