URBAN crooks are being blamed for a surge in the number of poaching in the rural Yorkshire Dales, fuelling fears they could be linked to more sinister criminal activities.

Bedale, Leyburn and Masham and the surrounding areas are being targeted, and Catterick and Richmond have also been the subject of poachers’ attentions, say North Yorkshire Police.

Sergeant Richard O’Neil said many poachers travel to the area from County Durham.

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He said: “We think a lot of the poachers are coming from Bishop Auckland, Newton Aycliffe and Darlington, places like that.

“Why are they not going out chasing game in County Durham?

“Maybe there aren’t any rabbits left up there.”

Sgt O’Neil wants to raise awareness of the problem and is urging farmers and gamekeepers to report suspicious activity.

It is feared that some poachers may pass on information to accomplices, leading to more serious crimes, such as burglaries.

Sgt O’Neil said: “We have got a problem with poachers, there is no getting away from it. We need people to help us by reporting suspected incidents of poaching.

“If people are not reporting it to us, we can only scratch the surface.”

Four poachers, carrying 80 rabbits, were picked up by police in Nosterfield, near Bedale, earlier this month.

The men, from Derbyshire, are expected to face court summons shortly and, if convicted, could be fined. Sgt O’Neil said the poachers generally sell the rabbits they catch – although the going rate is only about £1 per animal.

He said: “They can’t be in it for the money, it probably would not even cover their petrol costs.

“It is a sport to them, chasing rabbits and hares.

“The more intelligence we can have, the more we can arm ourselves against this sort of crime.”

Adrian Thornton-Berry, a partner in Farmoor Services, which manages shooting estates across the Dales, agreed that poaching was a serious issue. He advised anyone hunting legitimately to always carry written permission.

Police have the power to seize vehicles and animals from suspected poachers.

Incidents can be reported to police on 0845-60-60-24-7