HAMPSHIRE police seized illegal substances worth at least £54,000 and safeguarded 17 children during their latest crackdown on county lines drug dealing.

Officers recovered £4,140 of heroin and £50,000 of cannabis as well as making more than 30 arrests and taking a variety of weapons off the streets, including knives and a knuckleduster.

Crack and cocaine was also seized but has yet to be quantified.

County lines is the term used to describe organised gangs involved in exporting illegal drugs out of cities and into towns, often using dedicated mobile phone lines.

Children and vulnerable adults move and store drugs and money, often as a result of coercion, intimidation and violence.

As part of the latest week of action, Neighbourhood Policing Teams engaged with local residents, sharing information about drug dealing in the area and raising awareness of child criminal exploitation and how to spot it.

Officers safeguarded 17 children identified as vulnerable to county lines exploitation.

British Transport Police (BTP) ran successful operations in Southampton, Portsmouth, Basingstoke and the New Forest aimed at protecting children and vulnerable adults.

Hampshire Constabulary’s lead for drug-related harm is Detective Superintendent Nick Plummer.

He said: “No one really knows how many young people across the country are being forced to take part and support County Lines activity.

"Children without criminal records – known as ‘clean skins’ – are preferred because they are less likely to be known to police.

"However, children with criminal records are also vulnerable to exploitation from gangs who use them to operate their business all over the country.

“We are often involved in missing person reports of young people who have left their place of residence in another county and later been found in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, often carrying drugs or cash which results in us having to arrest the young person.

"However, this is also an opportunity for us get them the support they need and refer them to appropriate services.

"We are continually assessing the threat, risk and impact on the young person in these challenging situations.

"We have to consider the ongoing risk to them from the gang who controls them, as well as rival gangs, but this is an opportunity for us to put in place safeguarding measures and support that ensures they are safe from harm.”

Other organisation involved in the Week of Action included South East Regional Organised Crime Unit (SEROCU).

Detective Inspector Lee Newman, County Lines regional co-ordinator for SEROCU, said: "We’ve provided support to forces with a range of specialist skills and co-ordinated activity to ensure we work together to identify and disrupt serious offenders causing the most harm in our communities.

“County Lines drug dealing has a significant impact upon communities and involves the exploitation of some of the most vulnerable people in society, including children.

“We’re committed to further developing our understanding of the methods used by organised criminals responsible for County Lines criminality to ensure we can continue to target them, while working closely with our partners to support victims.”

Last week’s operation saw officers target 52 "cuckooed" addresses and stop-checked seven vehicles.

"Cuckooing" is the term used for when drug dealers use violence, exploitation and intimidation to take over the home of a vulnerable person in order to use it as a base for drug dealing.

A vulnerable person might be someone with a dependency on drugs or is suffering from mental ill health or substance misuse.

Officers spoke to 38 adults considered vulnerable and potentially at risk of being exploited by dealers and directed them to support agencies who can help them, therefore cutting off the dealers from a base.

Police say a "significant" amount of intelligence was gathered during the week.

Officers arrested 26 men, four women and three boys.

Detective Superintendent Nick Plummer said: “The objective was to disrupt County Lines networks as well as safeguarding exploited children and the vulnerable.

“County Lines and local drug networks cause misery for vulnerable young people and our communities and it is absolutely right that we continue putting significant effort into identifying those involved in supply and exploitation for their own gain.

“There is this strong link between drugs and violence.

"We have made significant efforts to understand the impact of those involved in County Lines and other crime that spills into our neighbourhoods.

“Furthermore, we have been supporting and sharing BTP and the Children’s Society’s #LookCloser awareness campaign to encourage professionals and the public to ‘Look Closer’ for signs a child may be at risk of criminal exploitation.

“It is aimed at anyone who may encounter children in their daily lives."

Key signs of exploitation include children travelling alone, particularly during school hours, late at night or on a regular basis. They may also look lost or in unfamiliar surroundings and may be carrying large amounts of money.

“Criminals groom children through manipulation, with drugs and alcohol or promises of wealth and status.

"Any child, in any community, can be vulnerable but they may be too scared to raise concerns and many do not see themselves as victims because they have been manipulated.

“They may not look or act like we expect a victim should, They may be angry and aggressive as these are common responses to trauma.

“This is not an issue we can tackle alone. Local agencies, charities, partners, schools, parents all need to help us protect the most vulnerable in our communities.”

“The collaborative work between Hampshire Constabulary and our partners in relation to county lines and the associated risks are always ongoing.

"But this coordinated week of action helps to dismantle drug networks across borders together and bring to justice those running these toxic drug networks that bring violence and abuse to our streets."

Anyone with suspicions or information can call Hampshire Constabulary on 101 or make a report on its website.