POLICE and council officials in Hartlepool are warning of the dangers posed by airguns and urging people to help them tackle the problem.

They have spoken out amid concern over the number of youths recklessly using air weapons in the countryside around Hartlepool.

They say that despite a number of incidents in which people have been injured during the past few years - the most recent being the shooting of a boy on Seaton Dunes, - groups of youths armed with airguns on nature reserves and rights of way are still a familiar sight.

Rural crime officer PC Jim Blakewell, said: "There is an enormous number of air weapons out there and some owners are too young and inexperienced to be trusted with them without supervision."

When stopped by the police, many youngsters are often under the impression that because no licence is required the guns are little more than toys and not really dangerous.

Gina Balzi, of Hartlepool Borough Council's countryside warden service, said: "It is not uncommon for us to encounter groups of young lads out on safari. It seems that the weapons are usually obtained as Christmas or birthday presents from parents.

"There must be an alarming toll on wildlife, but most certainly some people are becoming apprehensive of using beauty spots where they are likely to meet these gangs.

"Many countryside users and landowners tell us that they just can't understand why these lethal weapons are not licensed and treated in the same way as other firearms."

Anyone who sees airguns being used recklessly is asked to contact Hartlepool police on (01429) 221151.