Cash-strapped police forces are buckling under the pressure posed by criminals in urban areas, leaving rural communities ‘exceptionally vulnerable’, experts have warned.
Farmers Guardian’s latest statistics, retrieved from Freedom of Information requests to police, show rural criminals continue to pose a threat, with high value machinery, including all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and tractors, seen as easy pickings due to the isolated nature of many farms.
Government austerity cuts which have seen funding for forces in England and Wales slashed by £2.3 billion since 2011, coupled with an under-reporting of crime, have seen the number of rural beat officers drastically reduced.
Experts say this has provided rural thieves with the opportunity to target farms without fear of being caught.
It comes after the findings of the biggest survey ever carried out into rural crime found police were failing to tackle the issue.
The Home Office-backed National Rural Crime Network survey of more than 17,000 people, which was commissioned to improve national awareness of rural crime, revealed only 23 per cent thought the police in their area were doing a ‘good’ job.
Almost 30 per cent said they had failed to report the last crime they were a victim of, with 70 per cent of those saying it would be a waste of time because the police would not be able to do anything.
Mike Pannett, who served in the police for 20 years, said under-reporting of crime was a major issue due to a number of factors, including a lack of confidence in rural police teams and hikes in insurance premiums.
He added: “We have lost 18,000 police officers and we are not even half way through the cuts. We are going to lose 17-20,000 more police in the next five years.
“All this when we have never been under such a threat from crime. It is madness.”
Mr Pannett said rural policing teams had been ‘decimated’ in recent years, ‘leaving the door wide open’ for countryside criminals.
“Around the country, forces are dragging staff into the urban areas where the demand is ever increasing.
“These people [thieves] are not stupid. They will target areas which they know are not well policed,” he said.
Paul Harris, deputy police and crime commissioner for Gwent, agreed cuts to his force’s budget had seen rural areas ‘distanced’, because officers had to focus on urban areas.
“There was a focus on where the highest demand was, unfortunately to the detriment of our rural areas where there were low crime figures,” said Mr Harris, who is now driving a force-wide refocus on farm crime.
Tim Price, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, said repeated attacks were leaving farming families in ‘trauma’ and added it was vital police worked together and with the wider farming industry to combat the multimillion-pound rural crime-wave.
Mr Price said: “Rural crime is about more than the cost of a stolen quad or welder – it is threatening the way of life in the countryside.
“Farmers are having to regularly patrol stock, return machinery to the farmstead every night, and view every visitor as a potential criminal.”
The situation north of the border, which NFU Scotland reported was costing the country’s farmers £2 million each year, has led to a call for tougher penalties on countryside thieves.
The union recently set up a working group with Police Scotland as part of an initiative to forge closer links between policing teams and farmers.
The introduction of a specialist rural crime team in North Wales has also seen encouraging results.
North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Winston Roddick said: “The rural areas of Wales, especially the agricultural community, contributes such a large amount to the Welsh economy, therefore they are just as entitled as any other section of our community to have effective and efficient policing.
“Rural residents regard the Rural Crime Team as being part of their community and, if you observe the way the team works when they are in the countryside, you will see there is an affinity between the police and the people – as there always should be.”
The commissioner said the team had set a ‘benchmark for the rest of the UK’.
Rural crime facts
NFU Mutual estimates the cost of rural crime to the industry at £44 million each year
National Audit Office (NAO) figures show Government funding for forces in England and Wales has been slashed by £2.3bn – or 25 per cent – between 2010-11 and 2015-16
Cost of rural crime by country in 2014 (NFU Mutual)
Northern Ireland £2.4m
The rise of rural crime has prompted an increase in the number of community initiatives, such as Farm Watch, which work by sharing alerts and crime prevention information.
Farmers’ growing use of social media has also allowed police to work more closely with the industry to share intelligence.
FarmWatcherUK, an online community which spreads crime alerts quickly across social media, was set up last year and has rapidly expanded across Facebook and Twitter, with 18,000 followers.