Snow and slump spark 50% rise in deer poaching

DEER poaching is soaring in Scotland with criminal gangs targeting the animals to sell for their meat during the recession.

New figures reveal that officially logged poaching incidents rose by 47 per cent last year with some estates losing up to 50 of the creatures to illegal shooting.

Experts believe the slaughter may even have accelerated in recent weeks because of the severe winter weather. Deer herds have sought shelter from the elements on lower ground closer to roads and can be seen more easily against the white background.

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Aware of the rising popularity of venison, poachers are targeting the animals to sell their carcasses on the black market for about 50.

Such is the scale of the problem, Fergus Ewing, the minister for community safety, will tomorrow unveil a fresh campaign aimed at turning the spotlight on poacher activity, as well as raising public awareness about the issue.

Figures on deer poaching have been compiled by the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which reports that the number of incidents rose from 71 in 2008 to 105 last year.

Colin Sheddon, who sits on the government's Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW) and is director of the British Association for Shooting & Conservation Scotland, said the difficult economic climate had encouraged poaching.

He said: "The year-on-year increase in reported incidents of 47 per cent is indicative of what we are hearing on the ground – that there is an increase in deer poaching in Scotland.

"Part of the reason is the recession, during which time people think killing a deer and selling it on is an easy way to make a quick buck. The popularity of venison is on the rise, with it appearing frequently on cookery programmes.

"We usually see a rise in poaching just before Christmas as people try to get quality meat, but with the weather conditions an increasing number of deer have been coming down to roadsides and verges, which encourages people to shoot them."

Sheddon, who said the shooting and deer stalking industry was worth 240m to the Scottish economy, supporting the equivalent of 11,000 full-time jobs, pointed to recent reports of poaching as far apart as central Perthshire and Mull.

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"The reports often involve white vans driving around in isolated areas at night," he added. "These people tend to be mobile, they don't just stay to poach in the one place."

At Cally Woods, Birnam, near Dunkeld, Atholl Estates estimate that for every 150 deer that are legitimately culled each year, around 40 to 50 are now being illegally poached, with workers finding the heads and feet of the animals scattered around the countryside.

The new campaign will roll out new posters and leaflets, illustrated with graphic images of a roe carcass discarded at a roadside, asking members of the public to report any incidences of poaching to the appropriate authorities.

Douglas MacAdam, chief executive of the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association, said it was vital for local residents to notify police of suspicious activity. He said: "Deer are a vital part of our world-renowned tapestry of country sports. They are also an important component in Scotland's growing wild tourism industry, and deer poaching is a blatant abuse of that resource, undertaken by criminals for their own illegal gain.

"Deer welfare is also a major concern. Animals are being shot indiscriminately, often with rifles of the wrong calibre, hinds are shot with calves at foot, and wounded animals are not being followed up and humanely dispatched."

Deputy Chief Constable Iain MacLeod of Central Scotland Police, who will be giving a presentation at tomorrow's launch, said that while the increase in reports was concerning, it demonstrated heightened public awareness. "What is worrying is that more organised groups are getting involved," he said. "The romance of the poacher taking one for the pot doesn't apply any more."

Robert Balfour, who owns Balbirnie Estate in Fife and is chairman of the Association of Deer Management Groups, said he was supportive of the campaign, but the approach needed to tackle not just the poachers, but those who purchase their meat. He warned the illegal trade of meat has potentially hazardous public health.

"Poachers need an outlet to make money, and there will be retail outlets, restaurants, and hotels that are prepared to take this black market meat," he said. "There needs to be a two-pronged approach in enforcement. Not only do we have to clamp down on poaching, but also enforce meat hygiene regulations, so the recipients of poachers' meat know they are breaking the law and potentially putting people at risk."

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Alan Stewart, wildlife and environment officer with Tayside Police, agreed. "Most deer in Scotland go through legitimate registered venison dealers, and we've visited them all recently, so they know we're on to this," he said. "But there will always be pubs that try to get their meat delivered at the back door."

The WWCU has also logged an increase in illegal salmon fishing and hare coursing. Statistics show that there were 328 reported incidents in 2009 compared with 181 a year earlier.