POLICE are redoubling their efforts to catch ‘increasingly sophisticated’ poachers who are devastating South Lakeland’s deer population.

Latest figures show between 200 and 300 deer – 10 per cent of the local population – are being lost every year to illegal poachers.

The Westmorland Gazette was granted exclusive access to the launch of Operation Samurai last Sunday night as Cumbria Police battle to tighten the net on illegal deer hunters.

A team of 30 – made up of people from the South Lakeland Deer Management Group (SLDMG) gamekeepers, landowners, the Forestry Commission, the Environment Agency and 17 police, spent seven hours combing South Lakeland in pursuit of poachers – but drew a blank.

The team also conducted stop checks on around 50 vehicles and searched people.

They say the crimes are no longer just down to ‘Greengrass’ types – a reference to the character in the Heartbeat TV series – but are part of a ‘huge business’.

Wildlife crime officer Pc Tony Stewart said: “It is extremely difficult to locate poachers as they are very sophisticated.

“The days of looking for Greengrass type characters are long gone and poaching, especially deer poaching, is huge business. They can get up to £200 for a large red deer carcass.

“The poacher of today is intelligent and has state-of-the-art equipment including two-way radios, night-vision goggles and a very good knowledge of the local geography.

“All we can do is rely on operations like this to increase our presence and get the public involved.

"If they see anything they can contact us and we can act.”

“The methods used to kill deer are indiscriminate and brutal.

"Lampers operate in the hours of darkness and use high-powered torches to shine into the eyes of deer to freeze them to the spot long enough for them either to be shot or killed by dogs.

"They would think nothing of shooting a pregnant deer out of season.”

PC Stewart also received a call from a member of the public in Gatebeck with reports of gun shots, but despite a thorough search of the fields nearby, no poachers were found.

Bob Jarratt, chairman of the SLDMG, said: “Operation Samurai is a great way to help catch these people and we hope anybody who sees anything remotely suspicious will contact the police immediately.”

l To report any suspected poaching, call the police’s 24-hour hotline on 0800 807060.

Click on the link below to see Westmorland Gazette's cartoonist Colin Shelbourn's take on this story.