Borderland is safer than other areas when it comes to rural crime

wildlife badger
wildlife badger

“I DON’T think people realise just how many creatures there are in the countryside,” might sound like the start of a fable or a Just So story, but this story happens to be set in the Borders and north Northumberland.

The teller has worked on country estates in various capacities, along with ghillies, gamekeepers and farmers, but doesn’t want to be named.

“People rarely see a fox or a badger unless it’s been killed on the road,” he continues. “When it comes to seeing nature, really noticing things, and I’ve tripped over deer fawns hiding in hedgerows and all sorts, it’s only us. Well, us and poachers.”

Poachers to some degree still have a reputation as honourable jack-the-lads, who take a pheasant or two or tickle trout for their own pot, and enjoy a friendly rivalry with gamekeepers and farmers.

But the modern poacher has moved on from this Victorian image. Now they are more likely to operate in gangs, and take larger amounts of game or fish at a time.

One Borders gamekeeper, who at one time in the late 80s and early 90s ran into a particular poacher so often that they were on first name terms, has seen how the rules of the game have changed.

And one of the scary things, he said, was that though crimes do not seem to have increased in frequency, to him, when they do occur the poachers show less fear.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, keepers would get calls at all hours of the night, from people saying ‘I saw a bit of light in a field’, or a tyre track they didn’t recognise, or something small like that.

“When you got out of bed to go and investigate, nine times out of ten it was nothing.

“But nowadays, if you’ve got poachers,” - keepers tend to say they have ‘got’ poachers as other people say they’ve got a cold - “then you know about it for sure.

“These blokes go into a wood with a million-candle powered light, huge vehicles. They’re not afraid of being seen. Not at all.

“Really, with the game market as it is currently, with the price of pheasants in pence more often than pounds, it’s not really worth doing any other way.”

As with any crime, apprehending rural criminals – often in the dark, with guns and four-by-fours thrown into the mix – can be a risky business. The isolated situation of the farms and fields are at the outer limits of police reaction times, and that tempts some countryside dwellers to take things into their own hands.

Another gamekeeper, now retired, remembers catching a young poacher in the act, trying to take some hares. The youth was hauled up to the farm steading, to await the arrival of the police. But he was never booked.

“The rest of his gang came and got him,” the old man recalls, still in amazement after all this time.

“They were waving knives around, and they rode up and took him off with them.

“One of the estate workers got a very nasty knife slash to his neck, which could have been very serious indeed.”

Having seen such scenes, though, the retiree still feels that the countryside along the border is safer than in many other rural areas. He tells some real horror stories about working “down south” and coming up against hare coursing gangs.

“Now they were scary,” he said. “Hare coursing is often all rolled up with illegal gambling, and it shows. These guys could roll up and just take over your land for their sport. They would block roads with their vehicles and all sports. And there were enough of them that if anyone asked any questions, then it was a clout and a kick for them.”

As with any victims of crime, the effects can be deep and unsettling, and the relative isoation of many who work in the countryside means that support is often hard to find fter things boil over.

A young gamekeeper who was the victim of an assault outside his own estate buildings was so angered and shocked that he took the afternoon off - a rare occurrence when he is looking after his birds - and went across the border to visit a colleague.

Sitting down with a cup of tea, his host immediately launched into a tale of a fight he had been in, and how it had shaken him up.

“Wait, wait,” the pair shouted over one another, “that’s what I’m trying to tell you just happened to me!”

Even with all the potential for conflict in an industry that, most rural dwellers have little time for the current debate around homeowners and especially rural businesses defending themselves against burglar with force.

Of course, they will laugh and joke about sending thieves away with buckshot whistling around their ears, but people who work with guns as part of their everyday lives have a more sober take when it comes to the definition of ‘defence’.

When the topic came up with one experienced gamekeeper, who has worked on both sides of the border, he points to the recent furore about a Leicestershire homeowner who shot an intruder.

“The point that people reporting this miss,” he said, “and that every keeper and shotgun owner up and down the country is asking, is what he was doing with his gun in the middle of the night in the first place?

“If I hear what I think is someone breaking in, and for whatever reason I think I need a gun to defend myself, then it should take me ages to get ready.

“Theoretically, if you follow all the laws of gun ownership, then you would have to get out of bed, get a safely hidden key, go somewhere else to a locked gun cupboard and unlock it.

“Even then, if you abide by the law correctly, then you would have to go to another secure box, in another room, that is opened by another key, to get shotgun cartridges, because they are meant to be kept separate at all times.

“By that time, I imagine, I’ve either met the burglar or he’s off making his escape.”