An increasing threat of the theft of tools, quad bikes and farm machinery has rocketed the cost of rural crime to a staggering seven-year high.
The 2018 figure, which equated to a surge in costs of £5.4 million or a 12.1 per cent increase, represented a spike for the second consecutive year in which the industry had been robbed of almost £50m.
Each sector which had been hardest hit saw an individual increase, with agricultural vehicle theft having jumped 26 per cent from £5.9m to £7.4m, and quad bike/ ATV theft up from £2.3m to £2.6m.
Livestock theft hit £2.5m from £2.4m in 2017.
NFU Mutual rural affairs specialist Tim Price said the last time rural theft reached its current level was in 2011 when international gangs took advantage of a ‘largely unsecured countryside’.
He said: “Today, we are seeing another rise as organised criminal gangs with links to money laundering and drugs find ways to beat security and steal farm vehicles.
“Farmers and country people are suffering from high levels of anxiety due to repeated thefts by gangs who take advantage of farms’ isolated locations to steal machinery, raid tool stores and even butcher sheep in fields.
“In a single generation, country people have seen rural crime change from the opportunist theft of a single lamb, to brazen heists of tractors and rustlers stealing hundreds of sheep.”
The biggest spike was recorded in Scotland, where claims were up 62.2 per cent, with the biggest claims in terms of cost reported in the Midlands, at £9.8m.
Wales and the South West of England both showed signs of a decrease in claims costs.
But Leicester dairy farmers Esther and Jimmy Pritt said the impact was not just financial and also hit hard mentally, too.
The couple had their working dog Rabbit stolen while on holiday last summer.
Mrs Pritt said: “She is worth about four or five thousand pounds on the open market but her financial value is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what her loss has cost us.
“Isolation is a huge problem for farmers. For Jimmy to lose his main work day company has been a real challenge.”
A survey by the National Rural Crime Network (NRCN) last year found crime was up, anger was up and frustration was up.
“And trust was down and those rating the police as good was down,” NRCN chairwoman and North Yorkshire’s police, fire and crime commissioner Julia Mulligan said.
“These are trends we can no longer ignore.”
by Ewan Pate
Newly released figures show an alarming 62 per cent increase in the cost of rural crime in Scotland.
It is by far the biggest percentage rise of all the UK regions and has resulted in insurance claims of more than £1.5m.
Organised crime gangs targeting high value tractors and equipment are said to be at the root of the spike on thefts, and in one week in March this year, three modern tractors were stolen in West Fife – apparently to order.
These thefts would not be included in the figures released this week (August 5) which compare 2018 to 2017.
Martin Malone, NFU Mutual regional manager in Scotland, said: “While the increase in the cost of rural crime in Scotland is disappointing, we believe that without Police Scotland’s Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime (SPARC) initiative, we would be seeing even higher costs.
“Repeat attacks are causing widespread anxiety and exacerbating the problems of rural isolation amongst farmers who often work alone all day.
“Some farmers are so concerned about the risk of criminal attack they can no longer leave the farm with their family to attend local agricultural shows.”
NFU Scotland legal and technical committee chairman Jamie Smart said regional SPARC initiatives were in place across much of Scotland as well as regular farm-based meetings with Police Scotland and other stakeholders.
He reiterated Police Scotland’s plea to contact 101 with suspected activity and details of registration numbers or any additional information to help the force take the matter further.
Mr Smart said: “Regardless of whether the crime is organised or opportunistic, almost all will involve transport of some kind.”
Inspector Alan Dron, SPARC co-ordinator, said although any figures indicating a rise in crime were ‘never welcome’, it was important to place the report into context.
He said SPARC had predicted and expected a rise in the annual rural crime figures collated by NFU Mutual.
“The key is that there has not been a significant rise in additional crimes occurring in the rural communities of Scotland but those which have been committed have resulted in higher value claims, supporting evidence that increasingly serious organised crime groups are targeting and influencing rural crime,” he said.
Farmers are turning to new technology and a range of innovative measures to help keep tabs on their land.
Devices include infra-red beams, used to send alerts to mobile phones; geo-fencing, which triggers an alarm if tractors go beyond farm boundaries; and livestock marking which puts thousands of micro-dots into fleeces.
Mr Price said: “While the rise in the cost of rural theft is a huge disappointment, we are convinced it would be much higher without the investment in rural security by thousands of farmers and higher commitment from many police forces to fighting rural crime.”
Tractor theft hit its peak in 2010 at £10m, and since then NFU Mutual has invested almost £1.5m in security initiatives including a specialist police force through the National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service (NaVCIS), co-ordinating farm machinery theft intelligence between itself, police forces, Border Force and Interpol.
NFU Mutual chairman Richard Percy said it was clear the schemes – including the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime (SPARC), a joint initiative between NFUM and Police Scotland – were effective.
“They are also clearly demonstrating that sharing expertise and intelligence, together with a joined-up policing approach across the whole of the country, is the way to tackle criminals who operate across regional, national and international borders,” he said.
“It is also encouraging to see the range of ingenious security devices and markers which farmers can use to protect their property – many of them invented by farmers.”
The importance of looking out for each other has been brought to light following the surge in organised crime.
Gerald Llwellyn, a metal detector from Bristol, said farmers whose land he patrols have thanked him for being the ‘eyes and ears’ of their farm.
He said: “If a farmer is out and about, using a metal detector means there is always somebody going across his land who can keep an eye on what is going on.
“Farmers need to be aware that there is help out there. It is highly beneficial to landowners.”
Dog attacks on livestock cost the industry £1.2m in 2018, with farmers up and down the country battling irresponsible dog owners and their loose dogs.
Research by Farmers Guardian earlier this year found dog attacks on sheep had jumped 67 per cent in the last seven years, with police forces across the UK dealing with more than 1,100 incidents in 2018.
FG has been working tirelessly to campaign for better police powers and tougher penalties and are handing out free gatepost signs for farmers and landowners to encourage walkers to keep their pets on a lead.
To request some Take The Lead signs, send a stamped self-addressed envelope to FG Take The Lead, Unit 4 Fulwood Business Park, Fulwood, Preston PR2 9NZ.