COUNTRYSIDE officials are demanding talks with police chiefs following the collapse of a trial of three gamekeepers accused of accosting suspected poachers.

The case against North Yorkshire men Lewis Williams, 24, Douglas MacLean, 31, and Jeremy Wearmouth, 41, is estimated to have cost the taxpayer £100,000.

The three men were found not guilty of assaulting and threatening two rabbit hunters from Manchester after a trial lasting three days at Teesside Crown Court.

A jury last week cleared the three of affray, as well as acquitting Mr Williams of possessing a firearm with intent to cause fear of violence.

Following the verdicts, the National Gamekeepers Organisation criticised the prosecution, and demanded talks with the chief constable of North Yorkshire Police.

Officials are worried the case could undermine the good working relationship with rural police officers.

The organisation’s chairman, Lindsay Waddell, said: “We need an explanation as to why charges were brought against gamekeepers doing their duty, rather than against two alleged poachers.

“We shall be writing to the chief constable asking for a meeting because we have concerns about how this matter was handled and we do not want it to undermine the good working relationship gamekeepers have with the police generally. Gamekeepers have a long and honourable history of being the eyes and ears of law enforcement in remote rural areas.”

During the trial, the jury heard that in the middle of the night on February 28, Michael Collins, 22, and Luke Doyle, 19, were found near a van beside a moorland road in Swaledale.

The pair had permission by the parents of a university friend to shoot rabbits on their land in Aysgarth, but got lost in the dark and ended up six miles outside their boundary on the Gunnerside estate.

They claimed they were assaulted and threatened by the three gamekeeprs and that Mr Williams held a shotgun to Mr Collins’ head.

A spokesman for North Yorkshire Police said: “We carry out a number of operations targeting offences such as poaching and theft, often with the assistance of local landowners, farmers and gamekeepers.

Their help is vital.

“We sincerely hope that this case does not undermine or affect our relationships with gamekeepers, whose support we value very much.

“However, police must take all reports of violence and threats with firearms seriously.

We have a duty to investigate.”