A CHARITY is to launch a major anti-poaching campaign following shocking findings that up to 50,000 deer each year are killed by poachers.

Increasing numbers of the animals are illegally killed by night-time poachers and also illegal bloodsports fanatics, according to the Fordingbridge- based British Deer Society which monitors attacks on herds.

Dorset has seen large-scale poaching mainly in and around the Lulworth area.

In 2005 poachers were thought to be responsible for two severed deer heads discovered at playing fields in West Howe.

The British Deer Society is also pressing for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) to provide greater resources to tackle "gun crime" in the countryside.

According to gamekeepers and environmental groups, deer numbers are increasing as they have no natural predators, which has led to more illegal poaching.

There are believed to be around 1.5 million deer in the British countryside, including the native red and roe deer and non-native species including fallow and muntjac.

Peter Nixon, director of conservation at The National Trust, said: "We are not aware that the matter has got considerably worse but we are always alert to the risk of poaching.

"If the British Deer Society, with whom we work very closely, are saying it's a problem, it's not for us to contradict that. There are five species of deer in the UK and every species is increasing.

"It is unsurprising that with more deer there are more opportunities for poaching."

Nick Ridge, of Dorset Wildlife Rescue in Poole, has heard reports of poaching around Arne and in Corfe Mullen.

"The local deer population is doing quite well and people are taking advantage of that to poach.

"If they are on private land and have the landowner's consent it's not totally illegal. It depends how it's done. A lot of deer are caught in snares which is a terrible thing, and a lot of people use dogs," he said.

Bruce Friedrich of PETA said that police should devote "all necessary resources" to catching poachers.

He added: "Animals share the same five physiological senses with us and of course they feel pain just like we do. There can be no excuse for gunning animals down in cold blood whether legally or illegally."