The perception of poachers being loveable rogues is being stretched to the limit in the North-East.

Graeme Hetherington joined a team of officers as they try to track down the men leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

WITHIN minutes of coming on duty on Friday night, PC Steve Robinson receives a call reporting suspicious lights on the moors around Danby Beacon, on the North York Moors.

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Local gamekeepers patrolling the area spot poachers’ lamps and call for police back-up.

By the time the gamekeepers and police arrive at the isolated spot, there is no sign of any poachers, but there are a number of youngsters attempting to set up camp.

Gamekeeper Nigel Roberts had seen the lights about a quarter of a mile from the beacon.

He says: “There are a lot of problems around here, but it’s not just the animals they are killing, these poachers are stealing things and damaging the area with their 4x4 vehicles.

“The other week, when we tracked down some poachers, they were all wearing balaclavas and they just jumped in the 4x4 and drove straight at us to escape.”

Operation Lamper was launched in an attempt to stop the nocturnal activities of the gangs who are illegally hunting deer, hares and rabbits in the fields and woodlands around east Cleveland.

Police are working with landowners and gamekeepers to tackle the problem.

There have been reports of farmers and gamekeepers being attacked by poachers but, so far, there have been no serious assaults.

PC Robinson, who is leading the operation, says: “The vast majority of poachers are involved in other criminal activities and can be violent and threatening people. Gangs can be up to five strong, usually with working dogs and sometimes guns – not how many people think of poachers.”

The next call, about a 4x4, is a false alarm, but results in the police and gamekeepers stalking unlit, rutted tracks – evidence that every 4x4 in the area is being treated with suspicion.

A fire on the top of Eston Nab is the next incident that catches the attention of Operation Lamper.

Officers split into teams of two and approach the fire from different ends of the woodland but, when they meet in the middle, there is no trace of the fire starters.

PC Robinson uses a pair of night vision goggles to check that people are not loitering in the woods having been alerted by the approach of the officers’ vehicles.

He says: “The goggles are an excellent piece of kit. You can spot people hiding out of sight, which you wouldn’t be able to do usually.”

After spending four hours on patrol with the officers, they decide to call it a night and drop me off at Guisborough police station before returning their 4x4 to Loftus police station.

Less than an hour later, I receive a call from PC Robinson telling me officers had caught two poachers hunting rabbits in the Stanghow area.

He says: “We took the rabbits off them and they will be coming in for interview in a couple of days time.”

The threat of poaching might not seem important in the grand scheme of policing priorities, but try telling that to a farmer living on an isolated farm, with men with guns and dogs trespassing on the land.