A CRACKDOWN has been launched on illegal hunters who ‘torture and torment’ rabbits on farmland.

Police said trespassers have been plaguing land around Colne and Barrowford leading to complaints from landowners.

Officers have now issued a warning to hunters, many of whom go armed with knives, that they are risking arrest and prosecution.

And farmers’ leaders have expressed concern about ‘cruel’ practices being used on the rabbit population.

Pc Emlyn Parry, community beat manager for Vivary Bridge ward, said a 42-year-old man had already been arrested for possession of a lock-knife, while out hunting with lurcher dogs on Thursday.

“People are not getting permission from the local farmers so they are trespassing on the land without authority,” he said.

“And they are walking around with lock-knives, which are offensive weapons, in a public place.”

When hunting, the knives are used to kill rabbits after they have been caught by the dogs, which chase and seriously injure the animals.

People also use air rifles to shoot the rabbits, which can lead to unnecessary suffering if they are not killed outright.

Hunters often use a technique known as ‘lamping’, where a light is shone in the eyes of rabbits to stun them, before they are killed.

PC Parry said: “Trespass may be a civil issue but if people are carrying knives in public, as they are coming away onto a public road, they can be arrested.”

He said that hunters also risked losing their dogs as police could report owners to the RSPCA over cruelty issues.

Coun Ann Kerrigan, who is vice-chairman of the nearby Friends of Alkincoats Park, said: “This is just horrible.

"I am baffled when people torment and torture animals and leave them dying in agony. People who do this have got something wrong with them.”

Former Lancashire NFU chairman David Graveston said that anything other than licensed controllers carrying out a clean kill was ‘unacceptable’.

He said there were also strong concerns over illegal methods being used by hunters, who then sell on the rabbit meat which can be contaminated after being savaged by dogs.

Mr Graveston said: “Farmers are allowed to kill rabbits on their own land or hire someone to do it for them, but they must be professionals and licensed gun holders.

“On some estates there are also gamekeepers, but getting just anybody in to do it is a no-no.

"If they are a pest, it is right to kill them but what you want is an instant kill.

“If illegal methods, such as dogs, are employed it becomes very cruel and I think most farmers would agree with that.

"It’s not a nice thing to see or even believe that is going on.

“Quite often poachers are killing them to sell them on into the food chain.

"If I was to buy rabbit I would want to see the whole carcass hanging up.

“If someone inexperienced has killed them, or used a dog to do it, they will cut out the damaged part and fillet the rest.

"It is a concern and I would warn people to be careful.”

Andrew Rothwell from the NFU’s East Lancashire branch said: “If it is about getting rid of a pest, farmers will want the animal killed quickly, cleanly and humanely by a professional.

“The issue is with unauthorised poachers which can be a significant problem.

"Farmers see lights in their fields at night and these people will stress and upset the animals before killing them.”

John Collinson, of Carry Bridge Farm, Colne, said he had experienced problems with illegal ‘rabbiting’.

He said: “It is just annoying. People usually come around at the dead of night and you cannot do anything about it.”