A SCHEME has been set up to protect farms which have been plagued by criminals, including poachers and drug dealers.

Farmers are working with police in Darlington in a project which has already dramatically reduced the number of incidents.

Darlington Farmwatch, run by volunteer Brian Pavey, is the latest entry in The Northern Echo's Making A Difference environmental competition.

Sponsored by regional development agency One NorthEast, the competition promotes the work of volunteers to improve their local areas.

Mr Pavey, who lives in Darlington and is a former soldier, has spent six years helping local farmers with pest control on a voluntary basis, but was appalled at the activities of local criminals ranging from poaching for hares with dogs to stealing from farms and dealing drugs.

There have also been incidents where farmers have been threatened and their fencing damaged.

Backed by the farmers and police officers, Mr Pavey established Farmwatch in March and is now its unpaid co-ordinator.

Mr Pavey, who is 64, runs regular patrols and the farmers record details of anyone suspicious on their land.

Police support includes input from Darlington wildlife liaison officer PC Steve Rich, and the force's Rural Crime Unit. The force dog section and other specialist units also use the farmland for training.

Mr Pavey said: "The scheme has support from a dozen farmers and is growing. There has been a massive drop in rural crime.

"It is about bringing the farmers together and getting them talking to each other. Now, farmers don't hesitate to ring the police, where before they would not have bothered. The police have been very helpful."

Local farmer Derek Hill said: "The biggest problem has been with poachers, people crossing your land but you don't know what they are doing.

"Hopefully, with the police involved, the bad guys will stay out of the way. Brian and the police are only a phone call away. It is about reassurance and there has been a drop in incidents."