Deer poaching fuelled by high price of venison is growing problem in West
Westcountry wildlife is regarded as a "commodity" by criminals looking for "easy pickings", the head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit has warned.
Devon and Cornwall Police Inspector Nevin Hunter, who is seconded to the specialist investigative team, said poaching, particularly of red deer, was one of the "high profile" wildlife crime issues facing the region.
Offences are thought to have driven by the high price of venison, with the black market nationally worth an estimated £5 million a year.
But Insp Hunter warned it meant meat often illegally entering the food chain and also hit those with legitimate shooting interests.
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He said criminals, perhaps deterred from increased security in other areas, regarded wildlife crime as potentially "easy pickings".
"The biggest population of red deer in England is on Exmoor and that stretches down into central Devon and across to the Quantocks," he said.
"The price of venison has doubled in the last four to five years, so there's money to be made which attracts criminals.
"It a serious offence, first and foremost, but also damages businesses, with people paying good money to stalk and shoot deer legally."
Insp Hunter heads a team of 12 officers, who are headquartered in Edinburgh, but based all over the UK.
Funded by the Home Office, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Association of Chief Police Officers, among others, their specialist investigative skills and forensic expertise can be called on by forces across the country.
He said "persecution of birds of prey" was probably the "number one wildlife crime across the whole of the UK" with Devon and Cornwall having the worst record over the last decade.
But Insp Hunter said the unit dealt with a range of offences, often specific to certain areas of the country, from the theft of rhino horn and elephant ivory to the illegal trade in elvers.
"In Devon and Cornwall we do get occasional reports of badger setts being ploughed up by farmers but it is not like the hotbeds of South Wales, Yorkshire and the north Midlands where it tends to be a lot more organised," he explained. "That is not to say it doesn't go on but I couldn't say that it is a priority down here.
"In Lincolnshire, for example, hare coursing, which is a serious crime, happens almost on a daily basis at certain times of the year."
In recent years, the unit has advised on several high profile Westcountry cases including that of Marcus Betteridge, from Totnes, and Seymour Parish Crang, from Ivybridge.
They were ordered to pay a total of more than £2,500 after admitting wildlife offences in Devon.
Betteridge pleaded guilty to intentionally or recklessly disturbing a Dartford warbler at Little Haldon, near Teignmouth, in 2009 and was fined £1,000 by magistrates with £265 costs. Crang admitted a charge of illegally possessing 15 wild bird eggs, and received the same punishment.
Insp Hunter is among the speakers at special events targeted at tackling crime in the countryside. The first is taking place at Westpoint, near Exeter, on Friday followed by The Royal Cornwall Showground, Wadebridge, on February 15.