IT was once the scourge of the aristocracy as they battled to keep the poor from stealing their prized game.

The threat of poachers meant that gamekeepers and farmers were forced to patrol their land in a bid to protect their livestock.

However, far from a scene from the history books, this is the reality for landowners under siege by poachers as the credit crunch continues to bite in rural Hampshire.

Police have been inundated with complaints from farmers who say that they are running scared as a result of the crimewave.

Some are sleeping with weapons by the door while others are risking their lives patrolling their land at night in a bid to stop the poachers.

Violence has nearly erupted between farmers and poachers several times and on one occasion led to a high-speed chase.

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A gamekeeper, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said that he chased poachers from a farm near Corhampton at speeds of up to 80mph.

The chase ended only when the poachers rammed his vehicle in a bid to escape.

Police are urging calm and have issued a warning for farmers not to take the law into their own hands.

An emergency meeting has been held between police and landowners in a bid to tackle the problem.

At the meeting, farmers said that poaching was the worst it has been in living memory. One gamekeeper said that it was the worst he had seen in 25 years.

Police confirmed a record number of incidents reported in mid-Hampshire in October 2008, being more than three times that for the same period last year.

Charlie Flindt, of Manor Farm in Hinton Ampner, said that poachers had targeted his farm several times.

He said: “I was born in that house across the yard, and for the first time in 47 years I’m keeping a baseball bat beside the back door.

“I’m having to do nightly sweeps of the fields. We are angry, and we are very scared, and someone is going to get hurt at this rate.”

He said that poachers were taking a wide range of animals, including deer, pheasants and partridges. He added that two Shetland ponies were taken in nearby Cheriton last month and some farmers had reported having dogs and chickens stolen.

Insp Jim Pegler confirmed that there have been 14 reports of suspected poaching since early October, compared with four in the same period last year.

He said that he was appealing to police bosses to extend a pilot scheme that has reduced poaching in north Hampshire.

He said: “I’ve handed my proposal to my bosses, and I would be surprised if it’s turned down, because it needs to happen with the rise that we’ve had.

“We acknowledge there is a problem, and we want to do something about it.”

Firearms Sgt Kevin Hercock said: “Please remember that all of your firearm certificates depend on your good character, and you don’t want to lose that, along with your livelihoods.”

Night-time patrols have been stepped up and officers are actively recording the car number plates of suspects seen in the area.

Mark Oaten, Liberal Democrat MP for Winchester, said: “Farmers are having it tough enough at the moment without the additional problem of having their goods stolen.

“This is clearly organised poaching and we need to nip it in the bud otherwise it will be a winter of misery for farmers and gamekeepers alike.”