With the countryside in the grip of a crime ‘epidemic’, the NFU is calling on every police force to establish a dedicated rural crime team.
Tim Relf hears from three such units about the concerns in their areas and how they are tackling them...
New figures from NFU Mutual showing rural theft to be at a five-year high have thrown a new spotlight on this distressing and costly issue.
Many farmers feel let down by the authorities and such concerns recently prompted NFU president, Minette Batters, to demand urgent action from the Government and police to protect the countryside from becoming a ‘soft target’ for law-breakers.
According to Rob Taylor, who manages North Wales Police’s Rural Crime Team, better policing in towns and cities has dispersed crime to the countryside.
Investigating such offences brings its own challenges because, unlike in built-up areas, there is less CCTV and potentially less forensic evidence.
"Plus animals do not talk, so you might not have the witnesses," he says.
The police have had to take a new approach, which can mean blending old-style techniques with new kit, says Mr Taylor.
“Being contactable, being visible and talking to people, while also using technology such as drones and social media and harnessing the power of the media.”
While issues occur year-round and range from badger and bird of prey offences to tractor and tool theft, their nature is seasonal, according to Mr Taylor.
In the lambing season, for example, livestock worrying by dogs is a particularly big problem.
“It is a trauma to everyone”, he said.
“Sheep can be torn to bits. It is violent and brutal and can cost farmers thousands of pounds, or even their livelihood.”
Mr Taylor acknowledges some farmers have lost confidence in the police’s ability to tackle the problem, so have not always reported problems, but he thinks this is changing.
“These criminals certainly are not stupid, but we have got a lot of resource and we are very proactive so they should know the net is getting tighter. Farmers deserve policing as good as anyone in the cities gets.”
Dorset-based PCSO Tom Balchin has also sensed a nationwide frustration among the farming community at policing, but says building relationships by face-to-face interaction with individuals and organisations like Young Farmers’ Clubs, plus forging closer links on social media, is paying dividends.
In PCSO Balchin’s patch, poaching and hare coursing is prevalent, and where farmers have tried to challenge trespassers, they have been ‘met with threats and abuse or worse’.
The associated damage to land and crops has been particularly bad this year because wet spring weather meant crops were less advanced, he said.
He is urging farmers to be especially vigilant over the summer, because it is often busy times of year when they are less likely to take routine precautions and so become more vulnerable.
In Derbyshire, PC Karl Webster is urging farmers to build common-sense security measures into their routines – whether it is locking gates, using security lighting or parking kit sensibly at night.
“It is never a guarantee and it will not stop the determined criminal, but it might stop the casual, opportunist, drive-by thief which can be the majority.
“They are going to look for easy targets. You have got to make it that much more difficult for the criminals.”
Vehicles and machinery are perennially popular targets, he said, with Land Rover Defenders being especially vulnerable.
“The relatively close proximity of Sheffield and Manchester means criminals can get to this area relatively easily and quickly in the hope of disappearing again with rich pickings”, adds PC Webster.
The team, which was launched at Bakewell Agricultural Business Centre just over a year ago, is also establishing closer relationships with neighbouring forces, such as Cheshire, Staffordshire and South Yorkshire, because ‘criminals do not recognise boundaries’.
The local bobby ‘who used to know everyone and everything’ does not exist anymore, but units such as his are, according to PC Webster, working hard to build a rapport with farmers.
“We do not want farmers to think we never do anything and that we are not interested in them”, he adds.
The National Rural Crime Network recently launched its 2018 survey to build up a ‘true picture’ of crime and anti-social behaviour in rural communities across England and Wales.
The previous NRCN survey in 2015 put the cost at £800 million per year and highlighted ‘chronic under-reporting, anger and frustration at the police and Government’.
The survey is open until Sunday, June 10 at www.nationalruralcrimenetwork.net
Ever wondered what crime issues those overseas have to contend with? Illinois farmer Tracy Doonan shares his perspective from the US.
Do you feel safe or vulnerable living on a farm?
I feel totally safe where I live. If you asked ‘who locks their house’ at the local farm supply centre, maybe 30 per cent would say they did. It also depends on how far from a built-up area you live.
I know all my neighbours, but if I lived near a new urban development I could get 10 new neighbours in a year and not know any of them.
I’m not implying that they would be criminals, but a lot of these new rural arrivals feel your farm ground is now their open air park and that they can ride their horse or four-wheeler anywhere they want. If they are injured, you are liable.
What crime issues do farmers in your area have to contend with?
Meth-making and marijuana growing are two new problem farmers face. Many abandoned farmsteads are ideal locations for ‘cooking’ meth.
Once they are done, the ‘meth lab’ is a toxic chemical waste site. If something is stolen from your farm you have insurance to cover your loss, but the expense of the clean-up of a meth lab is all on the landowner.
Vandalism is also a concern. So many farms have removed border fences and kids simply drive off the road and through your field damaging the crop.
When it comes to theft, what are the main items that are targeted?
Very seldom is a large item taken, like a piece of farm equipment, usually it is just tools, jewellery and guns as they are easy to turn into cash.
Do farm houses often get burgled?
Not too often. I have lived in the area all my life, I am 66 now and I can only think of two or three houses which were broken into. A rural community is so interconnected that any strange vehicle or suspicious activity stands out.
How good are the police in your rural areas at preventing crime or capturing those responsible?
Crime prevention is really up to individual farmers. Lock your shop, do not leave keys in your vehicles, keep an eye on your neighbourhood.
Solving crime depends more on the severity of the crime. All are reported, but I think few break-ins are solved, it is just not possible to run down a few missing items.
Police presence is sporadic. With more miles to cover than manpower available, only so much can be done. But I feel safe where I live; I have never been a victim of a crime.
Do you feel your politicians and government appreciate the extent of the rural crime problem?
Yes. All the law enforcement agencies which have jurisdiction in my area – the state, the county, and federal agents – all share information. If they should see an upturn in some sort of crime, or a trend should develop, they are on top of it.
Tell us about a simple, practical way that farmers try to deter criminals.
Technology. There is so much available, from the simplest types like motion-detection yard lights, to the advanced like exterior cameras which send video images to your phone wherever you might be.