With countryside crime an ongoing challenge for the farming community, meet the Yorkshire group fighting back. Danusia Osiowy reports.
Rural crime has never been as prevalent as it is in today’s farming community.
In 2017, it cost the UK economy a shocking £44.5 million, with quads, Land Rover Defenders, tractors and livestock among the most popular targets for thieves.
The figures, released annually by the NFU Mutual Rural Crime Report, also reveal it isn’t just the practical damage it causes, but the worry and anxiety a theft can bring to those living and working in the countryside.
Unlike most urban businesses, farmers are not often able to lock up all of their machinery and equipment in one secure building at night. Around 60 per cent of farmers who were surveyed said they are worried about becoming a victim crime in the future, with almost half saying their quality of life is being moderately or greatly affected by crime.
But refusing to fall victim to the problem and instead using the power of the Young Farmers’ Club network is Worth Valley who have single-handedly galvanised their local community to fight back against the onset – and consequence – of rural crime.
The West Yorkshire-based club had reached a stage in the summer of 2016 where at every meeting their 80-strong membership were reporting new thefts in the area, from a trailer being pinched to having livestock swiped from under their nose.
Worth Valley YFC leader Andrew Wood says: “Every meeting seemed to be more and more tales about rural crime. So we decided to do something positive and help the already overstretched rural police force, as well as helping ourselves and the local community.”
The club’s frustration prompted the launch of Fields of Vision, a rural intelligence gathering scheme aimed at empowering local communities to be rural crime fighters.
“It struck me that in a community group where everyone knows each other, we could help share information to report crime,” Andrew adds.
The initiative allows rural people to work as a collaborative network to reduce rural crime and help police catch the criminals in real time.
It works by using WhatsApp – a free smartphone messaging application which is available on Android and Apple devices.
Andrew says: “We established our group on WhatsApp and then share information with each other.
“For example, if someone had seen suspicious activity or an actual theft, you’d get on our WhatsApp conversation, spread the word and an army of people spring into action. You soon get a feel if something is bubbling, or not as it should be.
“Spreading the word in real time is really the crux and reminds others to be on guard and gain as much information as possible.”
The scheme has received funding from the West Yorkshire Police Proceeds of Crime fund and the group currently has more than 100 members. Andrew is keen to increase this to 256, the maximum number of people up allowed in a WhatsApp group.
The group, keen to make their presence known, even placed their logo into one of the area’s fields, reminding would-be criminals of their strength in numbers – and the results have been surprising.
“The system did result in the arrest and charge of a crime committed in the local area that wasn’t related to theft,” says Andrew.
“One member had noticed some blood smeared down a car and told the group what they had seen.
Another had heard there had been an affray in a nearby area. It turns out the two were connected and the police then got involved.”
With three groups set up in Yorkshire and one in Kent, Andrew hopes rural communities nationwide will benefit from creating their own. Anyone interested in starting a Fields of Vision WhatsApp group in their rural community must register via the site.
The registration is free and only allows people who are genuinely interested in rural crime prevention to take part.
Once registered, representatives of Fields Of Vision can post a message in the group about anything suspicious in their local area and can keep up-to-date with messages from other members too.
“A group can be up and running in as little as 10 minutes,” Andrew adds. “If we can stop one per cent of the crime going on in the local area, at least that’s someone who’s not going to have that horrible feeling when they’ve been a victim of crime.”
“Countryside communities are very close-knit. Generally everyone knows everyone else and rural people have a sixth sense as a result.
“They know strange activity when they see it, but often refrain from ringing 999 to avoid wasting valuable police time. The service allows them to communicate this activity with fellow members so they can be on the lookout should the suspects move along to their village, farm or land.
“If enough people are seen blatantly watching, taking notes and photographing the suspects, it will unnerve them, make them leave the area and hopefully encourage them not to return.
“It isn’t just about tackling crime. It gives those living in our rural communities a peace of mind.”