Hawke's Bay farms and blocks are under siege from poachers and rustlers, and police fear one day it will not be sheep, cattle or deer coming under fire - but a person.
"We do have a problem and that is our main fear because a lot of these people are carrying guns and knives," Hawke's Bay police Senior Constable Peter Gimblett said.
One of the property owners in his rural policing patch - a Puketitiri farmer who asked not to be identified "or they'll likely come out and have a go at me" - agreed, saying he had come across sheep in roadside paddocks which had been targeted and shot.
"We've had numerous incidents up here, and I know that in some areas there have been huge losses."
He had also encountered gun-toting "hunters" on his private land seeking out feral deer.
"They think they have the right to come on my land and go shooting. Can you imagine, in town, seeing someone walking through your backyard with a loaded rifle?"
On a couple of occasions the armed intruders had been "pretty aggressive" and he backed off.
"The issue here is the fact we've got five or six people working out on the farm at any one time and these people are coming in here - I'm the land owner and I have to provide a safe working environment. It's a worry."
Mr Gimblett, and Bay View Constable John Bruce, who is also dealing with more illegal hunting, rustling and poaching incidents in his northern Hawke's
Bay patch, agreed.
Mr Gimblett said poachers were "cunning and savvy" and were desperate enough to even take on other poachers who got in their way.
"The Bay View and Puketitiri areas are getting hit particularly hard at the moment," Mr Bruce said.
"It usually goes on the rise at this time of the year - they're out doing their Christmas shopping."
He believed the rising price of meat, the recession and the opportunity to make a few dollars had created the latest spike, which he also believed was only the tip of the iceberg.
"A lot of it goes unreported," Mr Gimblett said.
Eastern Region police Crime Prevention Officer Paul Miller estimated only about 20 per cent of poaching and rustling incidents were reported.
The Eastern region comprised the bulk of the figures.
In 2008 there were 73 reported cases; 95 in 2008; 146 in 2010 and 108 in 2011.
He said with sheep selling at about $100 each and some cattle up to $1000, you only had to do the maths to work out the cost to farmers and the economy.
"And of course there is the concerning armed factor to this."
There had been some costly, and grisly, recent incidents.
A Korokipo farmer was alarmed to find 18 sheep dead in a pile in the corner of a paddock.
Rustlers had made off with about 17 others - spooking the rest of the flock into a tight bunch with the 18 suffocating.
"He lost $4000 worth of sheep," Mr Gimblett said.
In another incident poachers made off with about a dozen sheep and lambs, butchered them then returning at night to dump the severed heads and skins.
While many rural communities had support groups in place, the region was wide open and often isolated. Mr Gimblett and Mr Bruce worked closely with farmers and property owners but said one important factor was often overlooked.
"We are not being told about it. Tell us, and not a month after it happens - tell us straight away," Mr Gimblett said.
"We have had some successful catches thanks to good pro-active responses, but too much of this is happening without us hearing about it."
Mr Miller said anyone spotting vans, utilities, light trucks or vehicles towing trailers in rural areas at night, where they probably shouldn't be, should not confront the occupants, but try to get a registration number, description of the vehicle and any other details.
"They will lose their firearms and they will be charged - there will be reparation and that can be costly," he said, adding that depending on the circumstances more serious charges were often laid."
The Puketitiri farmer said: "It's a big and dangerous issue.
"There are bullet holes in the traffic signs up this way - it's pretty disturbing."
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