POLICE have dealt a blow to gangs who were terrorising Oxfordshire farmers by driving their cars into rabbits and deer for kicks.

Up to a dozen people have been arrested for offences related to trespass, criminal damage and the illegal killing of animals following the largest Thames Valley Police operation against rural crime of its kind.

Helicopters, dogs and officers were involved in the three-month crackdown on groups of men who drove into remote parts of the county at night to kill defenceless animals.

The culprits used lamps to dazzle deer and rabbits before mowing the animals down with their four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Corpses of rabbits and hares were generally taken away to be sold or eaten, but often deer were left — farmers believe because they would need to have been disembowelled on the spot to make them fit for eating.

The killing of animals, as well as theft of equipment and farm dogs, damage to crops and hare coarsing, has plagued rural residents for years, according to farmers in the south of the county. One farmer, who would not be named for fear of reprisals, said there had been a notable reduction in incidents since the police “swung into action” late last year.

The farmer who has lived in south Oxfordshire for 50 years, said: “In the past, the response from police has been, at best, limited and, at worst, zero, but the police have got the bit between their teeth and I'm convinced they are now taking this seriously and are doing the best they can.

“The people do it because it they think it is great fun, and they have always got one eye out when they are chasing a bunny or two. They are looking over the farm gate for the quad bike or chainsaw, or where the dogs are kennelled, so they can steal them.”

Supt Amanda Pearson, who ordered the crackdown on rural crime after being appointed South Oxfordshire area commander in October, admitted the community had in the past lacked confidence in the police’s response to reports of crime. But she said: “Since November, we have had between eight to 12 arrests, and have seized vehicles, and the message is getting through.

“Fewer incidents are being reported, down from one a day to one or two a week.

“We can’t maintain resources as we have done, but if we start feeling the temperature rise, we can start putting people back.”

She added: “This is absolutely unacceptable behaviour and we will treat it seriously, and do something about it.”

The ‘lamping’ problem was raised in the House of Commons last week by Henley MP John Howell.

Mr Howell condemned the “mindless destruction” of property and animal life.

He told the House: “They drive into fields in vans or cars with bull bumpers, run down deer or sheep and, without any consideration whatever, leave them maimed, to die in agony.”

He added later: “This is not poaching. It’s just mindless and perverse.”