As the £45 million crimewave continues to sweep across the farm sector, Olivia Midgley looks at the human cost of rural crime.
When the judge sentencing two men for the theft of £35,000 worth of sheep in organised raids across the north of England said the rustlers struck at the heart of ‘close knit, trusting communities’, his comments served as a reminder of the devastating impact rural criminals can have on their victims.
Not only had Andrew Piner and Thomas Redfern wrecked lives and businesses and instilled fear in their victims and their families, they had ultimately breached the trust of their local farming communities – a trust which often binds those living and working in the countryside.
And as the latest Farmers Guardian and NFU Mutual research shows, it is a scenario which is sadly being replicated around the country numerous times each month.
Last week, a woman was battered over the head with a piece of wood when she attempted to stop thieves stealing her sheep.
Hours earlier, a farmer was mowed down by machinery thieves who made their escape in a getaway car.
Worryingly, and perhaps understandably, some farmers and their families say they have been left with no other choice but to change their farming practices or quit the industry altogether.
NFU Mutual’s rural crime expert Tim Price said: “Rural crime has had a profound effect on farming in certain areas.
“Farmers have said they are unable to keep sheep in a certain area because they cannot keep them safe and some arable farmers have had to move cropping because they are in areas where they cannot leave machinery.”
Mr Price said as well as impacting business decisions, the human toll of criminal activity was often forgotten.
“If people are unable to keep their farm secure, this causes stress and can easily get to the point where they feel they are unable to continue farming anymore,” he added.
Mixed farmer Andy Greenwood, whose family business in Halsall, West Lancashire, has suffered at the hands of rural criminals ‘too many times to remember’ in recent years, said he could understand how some farmers had reached breaking point.
He said: “We feel like sitting ducks. We need more police on the ground to deal with this scum. Just last week, we had thieves come on-farm and take a bike and try to steal a quad.
“Between mine, my dad’s and my brother’s farms, we have been hit numerous times and at least twice-a-year.”
Mr Greenwood said while police cuts across the country meant rural crime was not being prioritised in many areas, he praised the work of his local Lancashire Police rural crime officer PC Ivan Leivers, who he said had been instrumental in bringing poachers on his land to justice.
Mr Greenwood said: “We need more officers like that, who are not frightened and will not be bullied by these gangs.”
In December last year, three men were banned from entering parts of West Lancashire after being given the first Criminal Behaviour Orders in England and Wales under the Hunting Act 2004.
Mr Greenwood’s land was one of the areas targeted by the men.
PC Leivers added: “I know word of the orders is spreading among the poaching community which is exactly what we want. The message needs to go out that poachers will not be tolerated in Lancashire.”
A spokesman for Lancashire Police said the force was working closely with the NFU and NFU Mutual and other farming and rural associations to tackle rural crime and highlighted the Livestock Theft Prevention Initiative.
Central to this initiative were NFU Mutual-funded ‘ewe hostels’, where livestock suspected of being stolen can be stored while police investigate.
Sergeant Rob Taylor of the North Wales rural crime team said schemes such as this are the key to driving down rural crime.
He said: “We have seen rural crime dropping dramatically across rural North Wales due to a number of factors, including increasing our presence, using social media to alert the public and engaging with local communities so people do not feel isolated.”
Sgt Taylor said the force also shared ideas with other UK forces and some much further afield, for example in New Zealand and Australia.
In Scotland, the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime (SPARC) has been working to prevent crime and protect rural communities.
SPARC is made up of Police Scotland and NFU Mutual together with NFU Scotland, Scottish Land and Estates, the Scottish Business Resilience Centre, Scottish Government and a range of other organisations.
NFUS president Allan Bowie said: “We have held a number of successful events on farms for members at a regional level to encourage members to take simple precautions to protect their farms, but also advise how to correctly report a crime or suspicious activity.”
While many forces have taken steps to address the spiralling cost of rural crime, farmers in some areas feel neglected by police and have taken steps to address issue themselves, for example, by setting up rural and farm watch groups.
Others have moved to adopt more high-tech security measures in a bid to stay one step ahead of criminal gangs.
Tom Shepherd, NFU Mutual senior agent, Leicestershire, said: “Rural thieves are becoming increasingly sophisticated and using computers rather than boltcutters to steal from farms and country properties.
“Farmers and police have been working hard to adopt high-tech security measures to tackle the problems, which now include cloning tractor identities, advertising non-existent machinery in agricultural publications and stealing GPS computer systems which are a key part of modern farming.”
In Shropshire, the Stop the Thief campaign has seen 1,000 farms fitted with extra security, including laser beams across gateways and extra passive infra-red lighting to deter criminals and alert farmers to intruders.
Organic dairy farmer and chairman of Shropshire Rural Hub, Andrew Bebb, who helped set up the scheme, said: “On average, farmers have spent about £630 which is cheap enough, and those who have installed these measures have not become victims again. We would like to see this scheme being rolled out nationwide.”
NFU Mutual’s Tim Price added: “People living and working in the countryside should regularly evaluate their security measures, making improvements where necessary, remaining vigilant and reporting any suspicious activity to local police and community watch schemes.”