Loiter by any dual carriageway or trunk road in eastern England, and you won’t have to wait very long before a tractor comes along.
Thirty years ago, it would have been an MF135 pulling a 5t trailer or a Ford 4000 with a baler on the back. Either way, their measly 60hp and rudimentary gearbox would have kept top speeds to a heady 20mph, which was probably a good thing given the weedy brakes that were usually fitted.
Fast forward to 2013 and the situation is very different. That tractor trundling past you is now a Deere 6210 or New Holland T7 with 200-300hp under its tennis court-sized bonnet. Its top speed is almost certainly 50kph and its massive air-brakes will bring the whole rig to a standstill quicker than you can say “Sorry officer, I didn’t realise I was going that fast.”
This sounds like progress and in many ways it is. But PC Mark Bryant, based at Framlingham in Suffolk, says that some of the practices and thinking of farmers haven’t kept up with the increase in horsepower.
He’s in a good position to know. Not just because he’s worked for the police in Suffolk for 27 years, but also because he’s one of a handful of police officers across the country that have experience of practical farming as well as policing.
His interest in farm machinery began on the family farm when he was at school. He went to agricultural college and worked on local farms before joining the police force. He still helps on farms in his spare time too, including corn cart duties on the local Suffolk roads. He also does a lot of talks to farmers’ groups, so he sees both sides of the tractors-on-the-road debate.
“In general the standard of equipment being taken on the roads is so much better than it was in the past, especially in eastern England where there are a lot of big arable farms,” he says. “We don’t get those old relics of the past going up the road that we used to.”
Equally, the number of accidents on the road involving farm machinery is pretty small. However there are some areas where farmers and contractors could sharpen up their act a bit.
“My main concern is 16 and 17-year-olds. When we investigate road accidents, we often find that they are young drivers with very little experience and training,” he says. That doesn’t make sense, he points out – they need to have some experience on other field jobs first before taking to the roads.
Speeding through villages
“We get a lot more complaints these days about huge tractors and trailers flying through small villages,” he says. “The size and noise of tractors can be frightening for people who have no understanding of farming.
“I understand that corn cart drivers are under huge pressure to get to the grainstore and then back to the combine,” he says, “but it would be good PR if they eased back a little as they go through villages.”
“We’re getting more complaints from residents about late or night working. These calls always start at about 9pm or when it gets dark. These are often from incomers who don’t understand why machines are working,” he says.
Whatever your personal feelings towards incomers, it makes sense to keep them on your side, says PC Bryant. A simple way to do that is to get their emails and send a round-robin email in July to warn them that machines will be working late for the next few weeks.
The development of Maus-type self-propelled beet cleaner/loaders, which are able to load over hedges into lorries waiting on the road next to the field, has brought a welcome reduction in mud on the road, says PC Bryant.
However the trucks have a habit of arriving six at a time and blocking the road, he adds, prompting a lot of complaints from motorists. So Suffolk police is now working with hauliers to set up a system whereby one or two beet lorries are at the scene with the others off-road nearby.
The latest trailers, with good brakes and bright lights, are superb, says PC Bryant. However some drivers are so busy that they are forgetting to connect up the seven-pin lighting plug. That means turning right into field entrances with no indicators, a form of rural Russian roulette that could have disastrous consequences.
PC Bryant is also involved with more controversial things like keeping a lid on hare coursing. “It’s on the rise at the moment and we’re working with Lincolnshire police on a campaign called Gallileo designed to cut hare coursing,” he says. It peaked at 300 events a year in 2003-04 and then dropped to single figures by 2008-10. However, it climbed back to 100 a year last year.
It is something Suffolk police takes very seriously, he says. “If you see coursers [in Suffolk] then ring 999 and we’ll attend.”
While tractor and telehandler heists grab the headlines, it’s thefts of smaller stuff that generally make up the majority of rural crime. “At the moment it’s things like fuel bowsers parked in field gateways that tend to get targeted. They’re easy to steal when they are near the road so simply parking them behind a hedge or moving them further back from the gateway will help.”
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The crops may all be a bit behind this year, but harvest will eventually arrive. As well as the heat, dust and long days, it means extra numbers of machines will be heading up and down Britain’s roads.
But in all the rush to get ready for harvest, don’t forget to be road-legal too.
That doesn’t just mean checking that trailer indicators are working reliably and mirrors are clean and pointing the right way; it also means remembering about the pithily-titled Agricultural Vehicle Dispensation Scheme, too.
PC Bryant points out that the scheme gives increased flexibility to farmers moving large or wide loads on public roads. Vehicles up to 4.3m (14ft) wide can be moved without the need to notify police of what is technically an abnormal load movement.
But instead of having to phone up every time you want to move a combine or large tractor from one field to another, the scheme allows farmers to escort their own machines, within a 25-mile radius of their base, using a farm escort vehicle.
What do you need to do? Speak to your local police force, says PC Bryant – ask for the abnormal loads department and they will help you. The certificate lasts for 12 months and covers all movements of the vehicles named by your business.
Why is this important? If you have an accident, points out PC Bryant, and it subsequently turns out the vehicle should never have been on the road in the first place, then the problems can really start to mount up. You have been warned
See more tips on tractors on the road from PC Bryant