Psycho-Poaching: "The Absolute Top End Of The Scale Of Cruelty"

Some call it extreme hunting. Others, psycho-poaching. It happens at night in rural communities and, fuelled by camera phones and social media, is growing in popularity and ferocity. Esquire goes on patrol with the authorities protecting wild animals from a new breed of killer.

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One morning at 7am in November last year, Phil Coates, a labourer on a large arable and beef farm in East Yorkshire, was driving a tractor through some remote fields, intent on making an early start to his day's ploughing. It was still dark and there was a low mist on the land: the mist meant he didn't see the mutilated carcass on the track ahead of him until his wheels were almost on top of it. Stopping and climbing down from the cab, he found a mature fallow deer, flesh savagely torn at its muzzle, throat and rump, and its fur a blackish red with congealing blood.

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At 37, and a farmworker for 21 years, Coates had seen plenty of dead animals before. In this case, however, the injuries and the location "freaked me out a bit, to be honest. Poachers have always come for deer in the autumn, when the crops have been taken and they can get on the land, and game's more exposed. But I couldn't understand why they'd hunt a fully grown deer like that and just leave it. And why would they let their dogs make such a mess of it? I remember thinking it must have taken some big dogs to take it down, and then they must have just ripped into it. The poor bastard. It was like coming across something from a horror film."

What he had come across, out there in the misty English country morning, was the work of a new and increasingly common kind of hunter who kills not for food or pest-control, but out of a highly sadistic sense of fun. The "big dogs" would almost certainly have been bull-lurchers, a cross-breed combining the long, fast, skinny body of a lurcher with the big head and strong jaws of a pit bull, bull mastiff or Staffordshire bull terrier. Some breeders add a bit of collie for intelligence. The size of a large German shepherd, the cross-breeds resemble wargs, the canine beasts of Middle Earth, more than anything else, and while they're mostly safe around people, they will kill not only foxes, badgers and deer but also fully grown stags and ponies.

Generally, the prey in this A Clockwork Orange version of poaching is deer, hares, foxes and badgers. Some deer are taken and fed to the dogs, or sold to dodgy butchers and chefs; some hares are illegally coursed, with bets placed on the chasing dogs; while foxes and badgers are just ripped to pieces. When the latter hide in their setts, some hunters will send in a terrier wearing a locator collar so they can use a receiver to find the animal and dig it out. For the psycho-poacher the thrill is the kill, not the chase.

Wildlife crime statistics are notoriously unreliable, because a) the majority goes undetected, rural areas being difficult to police, and b) it is hard to get enough proof for a conviction (of 600-odd badger-related offences last year, only 16 led to prosecutions). However, police, wildlife campaigners and animal protection agencies all report that the number of ultra-violent attacks are increasing across all parts of rural Britain. According to Cliff Harrison, an inspector in the RSPCA's Special Operations Unit, the use of bull-lurcher-type dogs began coming to the fore about five years ago.

Since then, he says, "these incidents have become more common, and we are seeing more and more of them. While the perpetrators can be any age, the number of young men in their teens and early twenties is growing. Of course, there has always been cruelty, but it's as if there has been a shift from the old, country-background of hunting and sport, to an attitude more associated with urban areas, of just wanting to violently destroy things."

Many of the attacks and kills are filmed, to be posted on social media or burned on DVDs. Harrison, a down-to-earth bloke with a sense of humour and London accent, says parts of the footage that he has seen recently have stunned him. It's not unknown for a pregnant badger sow to be tracked down so the dogs can rip open her womb and scatter the pink, unborn cubs across a field. "I've been working for the RSPCA for 24 years, but some of it shocks me. It is at the absolute top end of the scale of cruelty. It's not about blood sport. It's way beyond that."


A few miles from where Phil Coates found the deer, I am riding in a police car, out on patrol with Sergeant David Jenkins, who specialises in tackling wildlife crime for Humberside Police. It's a Tuesday morning, 2am, in the early summer. Outside, the tracks and back roads, open fields and outlying farms of his 425-square-mile patch look eerie in the moonlight. Inside, the radio cackles with low-level alerts, night psychosis: domestics, mispers (missing persons), self-harmers and suspicious vehicles out on the tops.

Tonight is not a dedicated poaching patrol, and Jenkins might have to respond to any incident, but as we cruise, his eyes rake the fields for rogue four-wheel drives and poachers' lights. Rural forces take poaching – virtually all of which is now about dodgy hunting rather than peasants bagging rabbits for their pot – seriously, not just because of the wildlife crime but also because the perpetrators also tend to be fond of thieving, carrying illegal shotguns and threatening people not to report them. A farmer in Fife, Scotland, recently described his local deer coursers as "terrorists". (Which was a strangely appropriate term, given that poachers will sometimes nick farmers' fertiliser, which can be used to manufacture bombs. A few years ago, when Jenkins investigated the disappearance of a ton or so, the alert shot up to national security level, and the petty thief who had taken it to sell on to gardeners was marched off by a squad of anti-terrorism officers.)

In the last four years, planes, helicopters, high-tech cameras, farm-watch schemes linked by text and Twitter, specialist police car patrols and a coordinated countrywide scheme involving the National Wildlife Crime Unit, have all been used to tackle the problem. This hard-core approach to some extent reflects the global concern with wildlife crime, which as a relatively low-priority area has grown to become worth £5–6bn annually – roughly the same as human trafficking, arms or drug dealing. The smuggling of rare animals – whole or in medical/ornamental/culinary bits – is becoming a popular new sideline for international gangsters and (real) terrorists.

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The problem, in East Yorkshire anyway, is catching the culprits in the act. "You'll find a load of blokes in a van with dogs," Jenkins says, "and they'll have come from maybe Middlesbrough or Newcastle, 70, 80 miles away. I'll ask what they're doing out here at 3am, and they'll say, 'We've just come out to give the dogs a run.' Unless we actually catch them doing it, what can we do? This is why the helicopters are useful – they can film from four miles away." Mobile phones make it easier, he adds. If he catches someone, the first thing he does is grab their phone, because it will usually have pictures of dead and/or gored animals, many of them destined for Facebook walls.

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When he does catch them, many make a run for it. If there is no helicopter, he will pursue them himself or with partners, in a sort of Countryfile version of a chase scene from The Wire. "They often know the area, so it can be hard. I once pursued some for two-and-a-half hours, first in the car across fields, then on foot, through ditches, all sorts. They found some tractors and quad bikes and used those, and got away." It can get ruthless: late last year, he was chasing some deer coursers with the helicopter, and they shone their lamps at the pilot to try to blind him – technically an aviation offence.

The question is, of course, just what sort of chap uses a spotlight to dazzle a pilot so that he can watch his specially-bred warg-dog rip a deer to bits? Some will be local, Jenkins says, but most come out from urban, or semi-urban areas, and are officially low-income. As Jean Thorpe, who runs Ryedale Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in North Yorkshire, told The Guardian, "It's not politically correct, but it can be a housing estate thing. Country people do it quietly. You don't tend to catch them. The housing estate people tend to be gobby and shout about it and that's how you find out."

They often come in groups of two or three cars, and they can be all ages. Drink and drugs do not feature. Sometimes fathers and grandfathers accompany sons. "You have to realise they're quite fanatical about what they're doing," Jenkins says. "I mean, they're getting up at two and three in the morning to come out and do it. We've had people coming down here from Dundee, and they'll drive down to Cambridgeshire and Kent for hare coursing. It's very much about the pride and status of having a powerful dog, but there's also a financial element involved, too. With hare coursing and badger baiting, there is often gambling on the kills. If a dog has a lot of kills to its name, particularly if in the case of hare coursing, its offspring will shoot up in value, and you can sell them by placing adverts on social media."

He is reluctant to name a figure for prices and earnings through gambling, but one campaigner suggests it is "well into the tens of thousands" for a top dog.

Richard Atkins posing with a still-alive fox. He was jailed in 2012 for using dogs to kill animals and film their deaths; the RSPCA noted his "malicious and sadistic cruelty"


Illegal hunting, and setting dogs on wild animals for entertainment, is not new. Organised fights between dogs and other creatures were banned in 1835, but badger baiting remained an accepted and fun rural pastime until well into the 20th century. Before the Second World War, some pub landlords kept a badger in a barrel so that patrons could set their dogs on it at closing time – a historical fact worth remembering the next time an elderly rural person boasts about making their own entertainment in the halcyon pre-TV era.

Such sports became strongly stigmatised in the early Seventies when, somewhat late in the day, politicians accepted that industry and agriculture were messing up the environment and began passing conservation laws. In 1973, badgers across the nation heaved a sigh of relief as they were granted specific legal protection, but their sighs were a little optimistic: by the end of the Eighties, the availability of cheap spotlights, off-road vehicles and free time due to mass unemployment boosted a new form of poaching/hunting known as lamping. Lamping is shooting, or hunting rats and rabbits with dogs, at night under powerful lights. So long as the species are not endangered, and it's done with the landowner's permission, it is legal, though an awful lot of it is illicit, done by groups who drive for hours into remote country to avoid police patrols as they hunt foxes, rabbits and hares.

Bull-lurchers have been around in small numbers for more than 20 years, but most observers agree with Harrison that the surge in their use for hunting really began around the turn of the decade. It coincided with an increase in badger baiting, but was also apparent from the attacks on deer. Jean Thorpe told me in 2010 that she had noticed unusually savaged deer corpses were now being left in fields rather than hauled off for feeding dogs or selling to butchers – and that some very badly-injured bull-lurchers were being abandoned, too.

What has driven this very recent ramping-up of the violence? No one quite knows, but it is widely accepted that online media has played an important role, with dogs and kills posted on forums and networking sites as well as social media. There are also reports of screenings in pub back rooms, as well as the passing round of status phone videos in the pub; such, perhaps, was motivation when, in July this year, 24-year-old fighting-dog breeder Joshua Varey of East Lancashire filmed not only badger fights, but also a mate climbing a tree in order to shake out cats so that dogs below could get them. The footage, which featured laughing in the background and animals yelping, was released by the RSPCA, and both men were jailed and banned from keeping pets for 10 years.

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"This sort of thing would have been done in very small groups before," Cliff Harrison says. "But social media allowed them to get in touch with a much bigger group of people, arrange to meet up, and go out together." At that point, judging by what some of the culprits say, the competition to be the hardest and most violent drives ever more extreme violence. In 2012, 45-year-old Richard Atkins was jailed on nine charges of animal cruelty, evidence for which was provided by video recordings of the attacks he had kept for posterity. And when Wayne "Podge" Lumsden, 23, of Lynemouth in Northumberland, was jailed for 26 weeks in 2011 for offences relating to badgers, foxes, dogs, cats and cocks, he claimed to have been the victim of a "group mentality" and his own "need to impress".

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You could argue that there are double standards, if not a hint of feudalism, in the way that all this is reported and legislated. It's perfectly legal for a licensed huntsman to go deer stalking, or to flush out game for a line of men with guns such as you might find at shoots on expensive country estates. In some places, there is also a degree of police connivance at the use of legal loopholes to carry on fox hunting; I once went on a post-ban hunt in the Midlands where someone cheerily told me that local police left them alone because a retired chief constable rode with them. And the digging out of foxes with terriers isn't a great deal more civilised than badger baiting – certainly not from the point of view of the fox/badger, anyway.

But then again, hunting at least pays lip service to the idea of sport and fairness, being, at its most noble, about humans and animals using competition to push against their limits. Psycho-poaching is the opposite, revelling in the mismatch, the massacre and the maul. As a Lincolnshire game feed salesman said to me, when hare coursing was a legal and regulated sport, coursers enjoyed pitting a dog against a hare to see if it could match the hare's turns at speed, and to have the pleasure of seeing their canines in full flight. Some of the gangs who now go out to do it early on Sunday morning are setting three or four dogs on one hare, because they want to see it caught and torn to pieces. "That's not sport, it's violence for the sake of it."

Anyway, the distinction between the establishment and the outlaws is in some ways a false one. Many of the bull-lurcher hackers and slashers claim an allegiance with the blood sport-loving toffs who led the Countryside Alliance's "Liberty & Livelihood" campaign against the Labour government's 2004 hunting bill. Trying to contact some psycho-poachers for this feature, I went out lamping with a friend of a friend and his mate. They shot a deer and sent their lurchers after a fox, though they claimed to have permission from the farmer who owned the land. When I asked about the extreme baiting and coursing, one said – rather cagily – that he knew some lads who had bull-lurchers, but the dogs had smashing temperaments and there was a lot of crap talked about it all, and then he and his mate went into a mild moonlit rant about the ban and people who don't understand the countryside.

The Countryside Alliance leaders were very good at rousing, civil-rights-type speeches, and in rural areas the anger they tapped and nourished persists – it is why you will still see "fuck the ban" graffiti on motorway bridges in the countryside. As Harrison says, some of the psycho lot now dignify themselves by "claiming to be allied to the 'fuck the ban' movement" and defend themselves with pro-hunting arguments spliced with righteous outlaw rhetoric: dogs need to hunt, pests need to be controlled, tree-hugging antis just don't get it. As one comments on a badger-baiting YouTube video: "piss off dickhead badgers cause hundreds of thousands of pounds in the uk thyre over populated in scotland… For centurys people have been hunting all over the world b4 theyre was super markets where the fuck do you think people got food? [sic]"

Leaving aside the issue of whether badger was ever really considered a foodstuff in the pre-Tesco era, this is a good illustration of one of the problems of banning beloved leisure pursuits: bans transform people from being individuals with a vaguely anti-social hobby into renegade freedom fighters. It's a bit like what the Criminal Justice Act did for raving, that other great illegal urban-rural crossover culture, in the Nineties. It would be stupid to blame the Countryside Alliance for psycho-poaching, but there is no denying that the anti-ban arguments they headed up are (mis)used as justification for it.

One of Atkins' bull-lurchers


Does all this really matter? Obviously, if you happen to be a badger or deer the answer is "yes", but is this not a kind of luxury law enforcement, given human-on-human rape, murder and robbery? Well, we have to be mindful of the links to other crimes, and sometimes you have to remind yourself of the weird extremity of the violence and ask how comfortable you would be if the perpetrators lived on your street? Take the charmers who in Kingsholm, Gloucestershire, killed a hedgehog in a playground by shooting it 16 times from point-blank range.

And there is another important aspect, too. At the end of the Nineties, research began to show that men who carried out cruelty to animals were also likely to be violent towards women and kids. In 1998, a study of women in a refuge shelter indicated that 71 per cent of those with pets reported that their partner had threatened, hurt, or killed the animal. Some years later, another report concluded that: "Aggressive acts against animals are an early diagnostic indicator of future psychopathy, which may escalate in range and severity against other victims."

These days, the connection between animal abuse and personal violence is so well established that in the US, social service workers and animal control agencies are cross-trained. In the UK, the NSPCC supplies briefing documents about animal and personal abuse for social workers.

In July this year, around the time I went out lamping, Brandon Robb, a 17-year-old from Leslie in Fife, Scotland, was accused at Kirkcaldy Sheriff Court of "uttering remarks of a sexual nature" to a girl under the age of 13, and then exposing himself and simulating a sex act in front of her; and later exposing himself and simulating a sex act in front of an under-13 boy. As Esquire went to press, he was due to stand trial in October. Earlier this year, he was jailed after his bull-lurcher-cross had killed a rare piebald deer. The case of the "teenage serial animal killer" attracted local press interest because he had used Facebook to post pictures of himself, in a Jägermeister hat, posing with his dog and a bloodied deer, and with other game, with pro-hunting rants. "fuck the ban, fight to the death", he said, "I was born a hunter, I'll die a hunter troops."

In April, Brandon Robb, (above), known as the "teenage serial animal killer", pleaded guilty to using a lurcher-cross to hunt and kill a rare piebald deer (above right).  He posted "trophy" shots on his Facebook page


Five in the morning. Sergeant David Jenkins has talked a mentally-ill woman out of jumping off a bridge in a market town, but we have seen no poachers. As we head out to the flat land near the coast, he tells me about the threats he receive and the things said about him on forums – and then he tells me about his dad. He was a veterinary surgeon, and the family was always involved with animals, but that's not necessarily Jenkins' motivation. Dutifully, he says the important thing is that policing wildlife crime serves the community, but occasionally you sense a greater sense of purpose.

Jenkins is in his early fifties and has been a policeman for 30 years. Sometimes, he finds it hard to keep seeing the same crimes, but some of the species need protecting ("the brown hare is an endangered animal, it's as simple as that"), and there's also the sheer nastiness to consider. "This sort of badger baiting is pure, unadulterated violence, because while there's no benefit to anyone, sometimes a badger can fight back. So they maim it with a spade or stab it to make it less mobile, then set four or five dogs onto it to pull it to pieces. How do you take pleasure in that?"

The radio crackles: a domestic in Bridlington. Jenkins pumps the accelerator and takes on that strange policeman-ish air of urgency mixed with extreme calm. This type of case is where you can see the continuation of animal violence into day-to-day life, he says. It's one reason he knows the patrols and the pursuits are worthwhile, why he will spend afternoons off in meetings preparing for court cases. Radio a-crackle, we speed through the fields, headlights on the road, dawn on the eastern horizon, farmhands and shift workers turning on their bedside lamps; light fighting against darkness in the green and pleasant land.


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