ARMED with crossbows and rifles, they are targeting some of Hampshire’s most popular wildlife.

Deer have been left to endure a slow, agonising deaths after being shot by the bolt of a crossbow fired by a poacher desperate for its meat.

Now police are stepping up patrols fearing an influx of poachers targeting wildlife across the New Forest.

They want to stop the area being used as a number one target for illegal hunting by organised gangs cashing in on the demand for cheap meat.

Poachers have often raided Forestry Commission land and large country estates, resulting in the loss of livestock worth thousands of pounds. With Britain’s deer population at its highest level for centuries they are likely to return to the Forest during the build-up to the festive season.

Poaching is classed as unlawful hunting and culprits can be fined as much as £5,000. But a single deer carcass is worth at least £50 on the black market, which means gangs are capable of making hundreds of pounds a night.

Police involved in the Forest Watch campaign are planning a series of special operations to tackle the menace.

Sergeant Louise Hubble said: “This time of year traditionally sees an increase in poaching. Hare coursing begins once the crops have been harvested, game birds are plentiful and deer become a target on the approach to Christmas.”

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Police are urging people to dismiss images of Claude Greengrass, the loveable rogue in the TV series Heartbeat, set in 1960s Yorkshire.

“Poaching can no longer be portrayed as one man and his dog taking a rabbit or pheasant for the pot,” said Sgt Hubble. “Modern-day poachers tend to work in organised gangs with 4x4s and have a number of dogs and weapons, including firearms. They have scant regard for the countryside and no regard for the wildlife they injure or the land that they destroy.”

Poachers striving to remain as silent as possible tend to use under-powered rifles or crossbows, which often fail to kill the animal outright. However, they rarely bother to pursue an injured beast and put it out of its misery.

“Previous incidents in the Forest have involved deer being injured with cross-bolts and left to die a slow, agonising death,” said Sgt Hubble.

Poaching is thought to have risen sharply in recent years, partly as a result of soaring food prices and increasing unemployment.

The British Deer Society estimates that nationally up to 50,000 deer are being killed annually in an illegal industry worth £5m. Landowners are also saddled with the cost of repairing gates, fences and crops damaged by intruders.

Last night police were unable to provide any figures for the Forest. A spokesman said calls about poachers were often logged as criminal damage or suspicious activity, depending on the incident.

A National Farmers’ Union spokesman confirmed that poaching was a major problem and the National Game-keepers’ Organisation added: “High quality meat sold cheaply will always find a market.”