Policing the farm

POLICING Suffolk's rural areas might sound like a quiet job but, for the county's wildlife liaison officers, burglaries, land disputes and hunt liaison are among their responsibilities.

POLICING Suffolk's rural areas might sound like a quiet job but, for the county's wildlife liaison officers, burglaries, land disputes and hunt liaison are among their responsibilities. Crime reporter Kate Boxell learns a little about crime in the countryside.

AT first glance Mark Bryant seems like an average farmer.

His remote home, near Peasenhall, is set in acres of countryside with impressive outbuildings and rolling fields.

A tabby cat nestles in his kitchen and nurses three, nine-week old kittens, “farm cats,” Mark insists and “not pets”.

It is the practical approach to animals one might expect in a farmer but Mark Bryant is not a typical farmer. The 40-year-old does not make his living from the land and instead works as a community police officer, specialising in wildlife liaison. It is a job he loves and one for which he feels he is ideally suited.

Pc Bryant said: “My farm has been in the family since 1917 and being a farmer I have always had an interest in the countryside. I used to get farmers contact me about various crime matters and basically I have a foot in both camps and can see most issues from both sides.

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“If someone rings up about something farm-related I think they like to know I know what they are talking about.”

Pc Bryant's work is largely focused on rural issues such as farm burglaries, land disputes and hunt liaison. Over the past few years much of his time has been dedicated to policing hunts - a challenge which increased with the introduction of new legislation in February 2005.

Although hunting with a pack of dogs was banned under the Hunting Act, two hounds could still be used to “flush out” a fox.

There was also no ban on trail hunting and exercising hounds and no ban on rabbit or rat hunting.

This means foxes can still be killed if they accidentally become involved in one of the alternatives.

Pc Bryant added: “Hunts appear to be quite legally carrying on within the law but the protestors don't always see it like that and we deal with the calls about illegal hunting which are numerous.

“The protestors view the law entirely differently to the hunters unfortunately and they are not happy with the law's current wording.

“As far as we are concerned all the offences that have been alleged so far have been investigated and have been unfounded.”

Much of the policing side of hunting is focused on preventing public order offences, rather than surveillance on whether hunting is being carried. This is due to the difficulties in following hunts cross-country.

With the saboteurs and hunters both so passionate about their cause, it can be difficult for police to keep those on either side of the debate happy.

Pc Bryant added: “People are entitled to hunt within the law and people are entitled to protest against it.

“It has been harder since the law changed because the protesters expected hunting to die over night and it hasn't - that was never going to happen.

“There are no hunts in the country that have closed down that I am aware of and it seems to have had the opposite effect in terms of support. There are more foot followers now then there ever were. There has also been an increase in protestors.

“We are there to try to prevent the violence and we have had clashes when the two groups have met up and it has got heated. You have two groups of very opinionated people with no common ground to agree on and we have to try to stop their clashes getting out of hand. Last year I think we kept the number of hunting arrests to two or three for minor public order stuff and we hope this season will pass off peacefully.”

Protecting animals is one of the major roles of a wildlife liaison officer and Pc Bryant can receive calls from the RSPCA, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) as well as wildlife trusts and members of the public.

In 2004 Pc Bryant was labelled “the saviour of the hare” by some groups after he and fellow officers launched an intensive campaign to rid the county of illegal hare coursing.

Dogs, often greyhounds, are used in hare coursing to chase and catch hares - coursing was banned under the Hunting Bill but prior to that some coursers were illegally using farmland without the owner's permission and could get violent and abusive when challenged.

Pc Bryant said: “That was probably one of my biggest successes, ending illegal hare coursing - hare coursers were not my favourite bunch of people.

“We did it by interpreting the law in a different way and looked at different legislation. We used powers to seize vehicles and that was the best deterrent.

“They (the coursers) were travelling from Kent, Sussex and Surrey and we seized their vehicles. There were no warnings and no cautions, we prosecuted the lot and spoke to magistrates about what the problem was and the threats and assaults being made.

“We got the fines up from £20-50 to more than £100 and we had a couple fined more than £1,000.

“Other forces were putting in for destruction orders on vehicles after conviction but then you could never find the vehicles so we starting seizing them on the spot.”

The National Farmers' Union picked up on what was being done in Suffolk and drafted a report for the Home Office called The Suffolk Solution.

Pc Bryant was then called in to give talks on the subject to other forces and gradually the problem with illegal hare coursing reduced.

Sadly, Pc Bryant said deer poaching is slowly beginning to take its place and is something officers are currently working to address.

As for Pc Bryant's views on animals, he takes a neutral line.

He added: “I grew up with wildlife and have a practical approach to animals. I grew up in a typical rural environment and am not a 'save the whale ban the bomb' kind of person.

“People hunt and shoot and that is their prerogative and people that don't hunt and shoot are entitled to protest.

“This is the best job I have had in the police without a doubt. I work out of Framlingham police station and you feel like you can make a difference in this area because you are not charging around 'fire brigade policing'.

“You have the time to see to someone, speak to them and hopefully make a little bit of difference.”

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