Wiltshire

Skunk cannabis smuggled from Holland in flower boxes

Barn at Poplar Farm, Wanborough.
Image caption Police found tonnes of skunk cannabis at the farm near Swindon

The Dutch flower industry provided the ideal cover for a multi-million pound drug smuggling gang operating between Holland and Britain.

The ring, which has been smashed by police, was responsible for smuggling tonnes of skunk cannabis hidden in lorry loads of flowers from the Netherlands.

The gang based themselves in old buildings at Poplar farm in Wanborough, near Swindon, Wiltshire.

When police struck last year they seized 10 tonnes of skunk with an estimated street value of £30m.

Eight men and a woman were arrested during the investigation, which involved detectives from Wiltshire and their Dutch counterparts.

Gang leader David Barnes, 41, from Hungerford, Berkshire, was the mastermind behind the operation which supplied dealers throughout England and the Irish Republic.

Perfect conditions

The flower-growing industry of Holland provides the perfect set of conditions and ideal cover for growing cannabis and for exporting the drugs.

Where you can grow tulips, you can grow cannabis - and the dealers took advantage of the flower trade to ship their haul to the UK.

After buying boxes of cut flowers at the giant international flower market at Naaldwijk near The Haig, the gang would then take them to their own warehouses before placing the bags of cannabis beneath the flowers.

Image caption Five of the gang pleaded guilty before the trial

Det Sgt Thom Hoekstra of the Dutch police said: "You've got the chrysanthemum, which is a long flower with a long stem.

"The flower itself was cut off by about 10cm from the top and 10cm from the bottom, so as you check the box, you can put your hand in and you feel the flowers, but as you reach more into the box itself, you find the plastic bags with the cannabis."

The couriers drove their lorries to The Hook of Holland and then on to ferries bound for Harwich.

With hundreds of lorries leaving and arriving each day, it is impossible for UK customs to search every one.

But in March 2009, acting on intelligence, Wiltshire detectives stopped Michael Woodage's white van on the M4 after he had left Poplar farm.

Inside they discovered 50kg of cannabis.

The seizure of millions of pounds of cannabis, tens of thousands of pounds of cash and the smashing of an international drugs ring is seen as a major victory for Wiltshire detectives and their Dutch colleagues.

Det Ch Insp Owen Gillard who led the Wiltshire investigation said: "It's not something I've seen in my policing career and probably won't do again.

"It's a very, very, significant find, just the complexity of the operation, security, the measures that Barnes put in place for straight law enforcement activity which he'd done very well.

"He'd obviously been doing it for 14 weeks and we didn't have a clue he was doing it at the time."

Three members of the gang were convicted of supplying Class B drugs at Bristol Crown Court on Friday.

Four other men and a woman had previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply Class B drugs.

They will all be sentenced at a later date.

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