Plymouth policeman keeping watch over wildlife and wild lives
Rising rural crime means Plymouth police regularly exchange inner city patrols with visits to the outskirts of the city. Crime Reporter CARL EVE joined one patrol to find out more
CRIME doesn't stop where Plymouth's pavements end and country lanes begin.
Criminals often consider the farmlands and wilderness surrounding our harbour city as easy pickings and away from authority's gaze.
As a result, police can often find themselves dealing with poachers and mown down sheep one minute and the next drunken brawls along Union Street.
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Acting Sgt Ryan Canning, a response officer who also doubles as the Wildlife Crime Officer, knows the highways and byways of both the city and the countryside.
It's 8.30pm and we're off hunting for fly-tippers, moorland speeders, poachers, thieves and any other law breakers we can find – after first helping a damsel in distress at Forder Valley Road whose car has broken down yards from the A38 junction.
Then, at Crownhill police station, we pick up Special Constable Sophie Ball, a letting agent by day and volunteer copper by night.
Up on the moors just 20 minutes later and Ryan is turning the un-marked police car down a darkened path on Roborough Down, considered a hot-spot for fly-tippers.
A week ago it was clear, but tonight he spots a divan bed base, a pile of slate and another pile of bricks.
He takes a note and will later send a message to the appropriate council.
"We rely on people up on the moors to let us know if they see people driving piles of rubbish around, acting suspiciously," says Ryan, ruefully.
"Fly-tippers don't leave their names and addresses on the stuff they dump, so we either have to catch them in the act or hope a member of the public does."
Further into the moors the various parking areas attract all manner of folk. A car with three young men inside understandably draws Ryan's attention – not least because they look like a trio of bit-part actors from The Inbetweeners.
Pulling up he's at their door in less time than it takes to dump a small bag of herbal cannabis out the window. The passenger is quickly handcuffed, while the driver and rear-seat passenger look on in disbelief.
While SC Sophie Ball searches every nook and cranny of the car, Ryan takes the owner of the unsmoked gear – a teenager from Southway – into the police car and runs through the usual.
Name, age, address – are all checked over the comms radio to see if he's known for other things. When asked why he's doing grass up on the moors, his answer is "'cos I'm not allowed to do it at home".
Ryan firmly explains you can't do the class B drug anywhere – it's illegal. Our gaze goes back to the kid and you can almost hear the cogs working and the penny dropping.
As it's his first offence he gets a cannabis warning, but Ryan uses strident words to give the lad a tip about his potential criminal record – employers do not like their employees to have one.
When it's the driver's turn he's cocky and tries to pre-empt every sentence or question Ryan utters.
Ryan takes the same details, casually asking if the lad's been in any trouble with drugs or in certain areas. The driver assures Ryan that he hasn't and looks like a rabbit in the headlights of the officer's stare when his last stop search in Mutley Plain is brought up. Comms told Ryan through his earpiece the driver had recently been nabbed, standing next to an undercover officer, toking on a joint.
Acting Sgt Canning explains, in blunt terms, how even if you claim you're the non-smoking designated driver, having your mates smoke dope in the car will influence your ability to drive.
He reminds the young man, who is now silent, that his £2,000 annual insurance premiums would rocket further, as would the points, the criminal record and the likelihood that his employer would want to consider binning him.
The three stooges return to the car, dopeless, as we head off along quiet roads, occasionally stopping to wake the sleeping sheep who have settled in the middle of the road.
Ryan explains how speeding, drunk and drugged-up drivers are often the cause of serious accidents on the moors. Local farmers have bitterly complained about the loss of their livestock with increasing reports of sheep and moorland ponies knocked down and left for dead.
"The drivers come all the way up here," says Ryan speaking of the three dope-heads, "because they think they can get away with it. But we do patrols here too and the drivers do risk losing their licence. If we suspect drug driving, we have officers who can conduct a Field Impairment Test and if we think that they're under the influence then they'll be coming with us, without a doubt."
At Lopwell Dam Ryan chats to a late-night angler who tells of mullet caught bearing net marks. Illegal netting of fish along Plymouth's rivers is a constant concern, not least because the poachers frequently turn their hand to all manner of illegal activity, from thieving to fly-tipping. The decimation of a range of fish types is a growing concern too for both the Environment Agency and honest anglers.
We potter to woodland near Dowsland where at another car park we see a lone car, lights out and a man sitting alone in the driver's seat.
"You get people who've had domestics at home, drive up to the moors with a bottle of whiskey. They'll drown their sorrows, then change their mind and try to drive home again. Or you have those who take a turn for the worse and try to hurt themselves. That's why we have to check, just in case, " Ryan says.
Fast friends and fast cars can keep the police busy on the moors and in town. In the next few weeks Ryan says he expects more deer to die. They move around dusk and dawn, which coincides with rush hour. They have regular haunts, like around the Estover industrial estate.
"I've never been down here and not seen a deer", said Ryan as we watch one skitter into undergrowth.
The night-shift often includes vulnerable folk looking to do themselves harm. Ryan recounts how some taxi drivers have called up police saying they've just dropped off a depressed fare at the Tamar Bridge car park. On cue, at 1.20am the call comes in of a taxi driver complaining of a a passenger fleeing without paying - a bilking. As an aside, the driver adds that the non-payer claimed he was depressed and had asked to go to the Tamar Bridge.
The blue lights go on and we're there to find the young man on the bridge footpath. Police are chatting kindly, while he laments his long list of troubles, and even longer list of alcohol he's sunk tonight at various bars around town. He's taken to Charles Cross where arrangements are made to pay his fare before he goes home.
It's 2.15am and after a brief detour along Union Street we head north again to catch a speeding driver. Our unmarked car is overtaken by the motorist doing around 60mph in the 40 zone and as he's being dealt with, reminding him of the dangers of speeding, we get a call about a deer being struck in Novorossiysk Road. It's more likely Plymbridge Road and we try our luck on both roads, but to no avail.
As we wait near the silent Estover industrial estate we admire what appears to be a family of five deer totter nervously across the dual carriageway, joining up with several others in a car park.
"What'll happen to the one that's been hit… will it recover?" I ask naively.
"No," says Ryan, watching a baby deer stick close to its mother. "It'll go off alone to die somewhere."
We try our luck looking for a known poacher by the quayside but our location is spotted by comms and we're being hailed to attend two men squaring up to each other in Union Street.
We arrive to find a group dozily standing in opposition. Acting Sgt Canning quickly establishes fact from fiction, thinning out the drunken young men, sending some home with strong words, verbally chastising an unhelpful doorman who has added to the confusion.
After the storm has passed, a swaying Matelot suddenly remembers he was hit in a nearby club and wonders if the officer can assist. Asked why he didn't point out this important fact earlier, the pot-bellied sailor replies "I didn't want to interrupt you".
Acting Sgt Canning explains, as though to a toddler, that offering such information is more helpful if you do it when the suspected perpetrator is in arms' reach. He takes the details, for the record, but asks his role aboard ship out of interest.
"Weapons engineer…" slurs the young man.
"They let you have weapons?" asks Acting Sgt Canning, his eyebrows raised.
By now, it's around 4am and I get dropped off to go home, while Ryan and the rest of the officers on the night shift continue their work for a further four hours. I'm left wondering how many more dumb animals they will have to deal with tonight.