By Andy Keeble
A poacher has warned that traditional poachers are not to blame for a decrease in stag sightings during the rutting season.
Tales of wounded deer, illegal traps, firearms and hunting with dogs – not to mention the grisly discovery of 11 stag heads in a South Molton lay-by – have prompted police to launch Project Trespass to tackle a problem some consider to be spiralling out of control.
But one local poacher, who the Gazette has agreed not to name, claims North Devon is being over-run by legal shooting syndicates and ‘cowboys’, and that traditional poaching methods are being lost.
The local smallholder, 44, said: “Poachers aren’t the problem – there are too many guns. Exmoor cannot sustain the growing number of people who want to get out and shoot deer.
“There are far too many trophy hunters in North Devon now. Licensed and with permission they shoot far more now than the poachers ever have. North Devon is becoming more and more populated and cannot sustain all these new legal trophy hunters.
“People want to syndicate the moor and have it for themselves. In 10 years’ time you won’t be able to go anywhere near Exmoor unless you’re part of a paying group.
“Landowners want the biggest stags for themselves; they are fearful of losing their land and are bringing in extra income by allowing people to shoot deer.”
The poacher blamed ‘rustlers’ for giving poaching a bad press, and in particular the dumping of the severed stags’ heads in South Molton.
“No local poacher would dump remains like that on his own doorstep, nor would he ever have so many heads.
“The same people taking the sheep – hundreds of them from all across the South West – are now taking our deer.
“They are coming down the link road in large vehicles, shooting all they can and going straight back before dawn.
“These are not poachers, they are rustlers, organised criminal gangs.”
The thrill of stalking
The Gazette was invited to meet the poacher at his home on the outskirts of Barnstaple. Deer antlers adorn the walls among family photos and it’s clear that country pursuits are a big part of the fabric here.
Over a cup of tea, the poacher refuted claims by police that ‘gone are the days when the poacher used to take one for the pot’.
“As with all things there is always an element in every profession that is not desired. But I have respect for most, shall we say, traditional poachers, especially the ones who keep a low profile and truly enjoy it.
“And I don’t mean by enjoying it, the dispatching of the animal. I am talking about the thrill of stalking and being able to sneak up undetected by deer, farmer, bailiff and keeper and to take mercifully, and return home safely, knowing with a smile, you have one more tale to tell the next time you all meet up in your local pub.
“To me there is nothing more natural than being at one with nature amidst the wildest woodland in search of tomorrow’s roast dinner. Not to mention a deal with the neighbour to swap a leg for a few pound of sausages.
“Poaching is an art when done properly; that is to say, when it’s done quietly, unnoticed and is merciful to the animal pursued.
“The supermarket will keep you alive and your computer games will keep you entertained, but for me there is nothing better than food from the great outdoors and the thrill of the hunt.”
‘The real thing is not to be known’
The poacher said he knew of ‘15-20’ poachers but feared for the loss of traditional poaching skills, especially among younger hunters out for the thrill of the kill.
“The real thing about poaching is not to be known so I would estimate there are probably around 50 traditional poachers locally,” he said.
“But there are probably a lot more younger guys out there doing it who don’t have a clue and these are the people who give poachers a bad name.
“In my lifetime, I’ve only shot two-or-three stags and maybe two dozen hinds. I take my time and go out for the experience – not necessarily to shoot something.
“In summer, I leave the deer well alone because they have all got young. I fish for salmon and sea trout from September onwards and stalk deer from late October, early November.
“I go out roving, mostly on my own. If I do go out shooting I go by myself, mostly at dawn or dusk in woodland.
“I don’t like to use vehicles if I can help it. I prefer to go on foot; it’s more in keeping with the traditions of poaching.
“It’s such a beautiful thing to do. I don’t have to shoot anything, there’s no need. Everyone should go out and appreciate the great outdoors like this.
“But it’s getting to the point now where there is hardly any wilderness left in this country. I want my children to grow up educated and that includes knowledge of the outdoors.
“I want them to keep their instincts in check – it’s important that we as a race do not become numb and reliant on Tesco to put food on the table.
“I want my children to be able to go out and bring home their own dinner for a Sunday roast.
“But it’s getting more and more difficult to do that these days; there are just too many people running about now – it’s one of the saddest things.
“North Devon is completely overrun. They all want to sew it up for themselves.
“Where is the skill involved in sitting in a high chair waiting for a stag to come up for its daily salt lick?”
‘Delay start of the season’
The poacher finished by saying he was in favour of delaying the start the stag shooting season a little after the rut, giving the animals the chance to pass on their genes before ‘stalkers go crashing about after them’.
He said: “I’d be happy if they extended the ban on hunting until two months after the rut – the start of Christmas would be good, perhaps Christmas Day or Boxing Day. “The numbers would come back because the deer would not be as easy to find then.”