How Leeds District Wildlife and Rural Crime Team is making an impact

PC Andy Katkowski and Sgt David Lund, of Leeds District Wildlife and Rural Crime Team, get ready to head out on patrol. Pictures: Tony Johnson
PC Andy Katkowski and Sgt David Lund, of Leeds District Wildlife and Rural Crime Team, get ready to head out on patrol. Pictures: Tony Johnson

A Landrover bumps along a muddy lane on the outskirts of Leeds, winding its way through woods and farmland that are a prime target for those involved in poaching, hare coursing and other wildlife crimes.

It is only a few miles out of the suburbs but it feels a world away from the city streets where issues such as robberies, drug dealing and the use of knives are more common concerns.

Read more: ‘We were living a hell’ – Leeds Farm Watch member on poachers, quad bikers and burglars

The car passes a gate where hay bales have been piled up as a natural defence to prevent the theft of tractors after just such an offence on the nearby farm.

Investigating crimes like these and raising awareness among the farming community are a major focus for the recently formed Leeds District Wildlife and Rural Crime Team.

Sergeant David Lund said: “They were having a spate of tractor thefts that we’re looking at. There’s an opportunity for us to get in early doors with farmers, tell them this is what’s happened, this is what you can do to prevent it.

PC Andy Katkowski scans the fields using night vision binoculars.

PC Andy Katkowski scans the fields using night vision binoculars.

“Our team looks at two aspects – wildlife and then the rural crime like tractor thefts, quad bike thefts, thefts from outbuildings. People have got to help themselves though. They leave quad bikes with the keys in.

“It’s getting people out of that culture of when they were young they didn’t have to think about it.”

Read more: New Leeds policing team to tackle animal cruelty, poaching and farm burglaries

Other persistent issues for farmers include people on quad bikes and off-road bikes trespassing and leaving valuable agricultural land unfit for use.

Sgt Dave Lund, right, and  PC Andy Katkowski check for signs of trespassers.

Sgt Dave Lund, right, and PC Andy Katkowski check for signs of trespassers.

Poachers are a problem too, particularly in East Leeds, where calls regularly come in to police as lights are spotted out in the fields at night.

Being able to rapidly share this kind of information about suspicious activity with both the policing team and local farms is the reason for the creation of new Farm Watch networks for the western and southern areas of the district.

This model was already well established in the eastern area, where PC Andy Katkowski has led on this kind of work for a decade.

Sgt Lund said: “Andy has always had a core of farmers that he’s worked with, but he’s always working with ones that are a bit harder to reach. The ones who don’t have that confidence in us.”

Building that trust among the rural communities in Leeds is crucial to the team’s success, but Sgt Lund is clear that catching those involved in crimes such as burgling farms or poaching has wider benefits.

“What we’ve found statistically is people involved in wildlife crime or rural crime are already known to police either for acquisitive crime or your more serious violent crime,” he said.

Read more: Suspected poachers target historic Leeds Temple Newsam estate

The team also works alongside others within the force, North Yorkshire’s Rural Taskforce and the likes of the RSPCA and Angling Trust to investigate wildlife crimes such as the killing of red kites, animal cruelty and reports of quail fighting.

PC Katkowski said: “You’ll have heard of cock fighting and it’s a similar sort of thing. There are certain people from certain ethnic backgrounds that are interested in it instead of cock fighting. There’s money to be made there as well.

“We’ve also been dealing with 16 Welsh and Dartmoor ponies that had been abandoned on some land. Working with the RSPCA and the Hope Pastures sanctuary, we were able to rehome them.

“We suspect they belonged to someone who’s been put on a lifetime ban so probably they couldn’t come home forward as the owner.”

The team has picked up on a rising number of badger setts being disturbed too.

“We feel it’s because it’s been under-reported,” Sgt Lund said. “It’s not that the police haven’t taken it seriously over the years, it’s more the fact that it had just been Andy for so long.”