A TERRIFYING spate of shooting incidents has left a New Forest couple fearing for their lives.

Denise Talmage and her husband David have had a series of narrow escapes at the hands of poachers and other marksmen operating in the countryside surrounding their home.

The couple were almost shot when a rifle bullet bounced off a stone, missing them by inches, as they stood next to their garden.

Now one of their horses, 17-year-old Ginny, is thought to have been hit by a bullet that ricocheted off the ground.

Mrs Talmage, 47, believes both incidents were accidental, but is living in fear of the next stray shot and has contacted the police.

She said: "I've got nothing against people shooting, but they shouldn't endanger lives."

Problems started in 1997, when a mare panicked and charged into a fence after hearing gunfire near the Talmages' home at Vice Lane, Bramshaw.

Mrs Talmage added: "A second incident occurred in June 2002. My husband and I were standing next to our garden when a rifle bullet hit a stone and ricocheted past us at head height, missing us by inches.

"Five months later a blacksmith was shoeing a young horse, which I was holding, when a gunshot landed on the barn roof.

"The horse reared up and slammed into a wall, with me in between. The blacksmith was knocked over and both of us were lucky not to have been more seriously injured."

The incident involving Ginny took place when the much-loved horse was grazing in a paddock behind her owners' home.

Mrs Talmage said: "She came in hopping lame and we discovered a hole in her nearside shoulder. At first we thought she had lain down on a sharp object and put her on antibiotics, but the wound kept weeping.

"My blacksmith took one look at the injury and said it appeared to be a bullet wound.

"A metal detector gave a positive reading near her shoulder blade, but vets can't X-ray horses' shoulders because their bodies are too wide.

"I can't say categorically that it's a bullet, but I'm 99.9 per cent sure.

"It's probably only about as big as my thumbnail and doesn't appear to be causing her any problems, so I won't have her put down just so we have a post-mortem."

The couple live in an area where people often shoot birds, vermin and deer.

Mrs Talmage added: "We've had three serious incidents, any one of which could have proved fatal to either a person or a horse. We should be able to feel safe on our own property."

Neighbour David Coates, a member of Bramshaw Parish Council, said: "Using a rifle can be dangerous and extreme caution should be taken at all times."

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation said: "Training and education within shooting have resulted in an exemplary safety record for the sport.

"Shooting has the lowest incidence of accidental injuries of all sports."

A police spokesman said the officer investigating the incidents reported by Mr and Mrs Talmage was unavailable for comment.