POLICE are investigating a country Victorian crime racket involving deer being poached and their heads being swapped for the drug ice.
Farmers who smelt rotting flesh wafting from the bush are now finding the headless carcasses piling up in growing numbers on properties in the State's high country and Gippsland.
Firing high-powered rifles on private land not only raises safety concerns, but police intelligence suggests a more sinister aspect has emerged.
Benalla detective sergeant and agricultural liaison officer Shannon Murphy said an organised criminal gang using encrypted two-way radios, spotlights and lookouts was decapitating deer to fund their addiction to methamphetamine, also known as ice.
"These groups have been conveying the heads to Melbourne with an aim to either swap them for drugs or exchange for money to buy drugs," Detective Sergeant Murphy said.
"I wouldn't say it surprises me, we've got some good local hunters who have utilised their skills to support their criminal activities in the only way they can."
Detective Sergeant Murphy would not comment on to whom the heads, which fetched between $200 and $300 each, were being sold.
In the past year, police in Mansfield, Benalla and Wangaratta had charged more than six people with illegal hunting offences related to the decapitated deer with one person appearing in court as recently as Monday charged with aggravated animal cruelty offences.
Detective Sergeant Murphy said police were conducting covert patrols and installing field cameras in the bush as investigations continued.
The number of decapitated deer was difficult to quantify. Police said incidents had increased in the past 18 months with reports of up to 10 in one night near Mansfield, while Game Management Authority officers said between two and four reports were made a week during winter.
"This is pretty sad," Alexandra-based senior GMA officer Stewart McGlashan said.
"Somebody has taken that animal illegally when it's vulnerable, easy to shoot and deprives the legitimate hunter of the opportunity to treat it humanely. Legal stalkers cherish the meat, they rarely shoot near tracks and they'll try to recover the meat as much as they can."
An Alexandra farmer, who asked not to be named, said he found the decapitated carcass of a stag barely 10 metres off a road and another on his property. He's also woken to the sound of a stag being shot just 200 metres from his home on his neighbour's crop paddock.
"To me, they (these illegal hunters) are no better than dogs that see a rabbit and kill it just to kill something," he said.
"They would have had no idea where the neighbour's house was, with those high-powered rifles if you wanted to you could shoot houses from a thousand metres."
More than 50,000 deer were shot and killed legally in 2012-13 and almost 43,000 of them were the sambar deer. The species is the most common in Victoria, prized by hunters as trophies because of the size of their antlers and their elusiveness.
Authorities say the illegal hunters were using spotlights to capture the sambar, who freeze in the light making them easy targets.
It is not only illegal to spotlight deer, but also to shoot off public roads or hunt on private land without permission.
It is believed the hunters sell fresh-killed deer heads, which can usually sell for high prices as a trophy, without having them taxidermied.