Criminal gangs are targeting lower-value tractors to sell for export to Africa and developing regions, warn insurers.

Rural insurer NFU Mutual said low- to mid-value tractors were still in strong demand by thieves – and they were now being stolen for export as well as high-value tractors.

Typically, tractors are stolen from farms, loaded on lorries and then shipped abroad on ferries to developing countries.

Tractors and telehandlers, especially those with front-end loaders, are a “current favourite target”, warned the insurer.

Farms in counties in the east and north of England are worst hit because they are close to Channel ports.

Tim Price, rural affairs spokesman at NFU Mutual, described the theft of tractors ranging from £3,000-15,000 in value as an “emerging trend”.

“Less-sophisticated tractors are in demand in these countries because they can be repaired with basic tools and engineering skills,” he said.

These include all manufacturers, with stolen Deutz-Fahr, Ford, Massey Ferguson and John Deere small and medium-sized tractors recently detected on the Continent.

Until now, NFU Mutual said all its searches had resulted in large tractors mostly worth more than £25,000 being recovered.

But the insurer said the sudden increase in the theft of lower-value tractors means on-farm security was vital to tackling the crime.

Farmers should have their tractors CESAR marked, and consider fitting them with immobilisers and even tracking devices.

“It’s also well worth locking up tractors in sheds whenever possible – and at the very least parking them out of view from public roads,” he added.

“Even basic precautions such as closing farmyard gates and motion-sensor lights can encourage thieves to look elsewhere for easier pickings.”

Meanwhile, ATV thefts are continuing to rise, with both the number and value of claims increasing in the first quarter.

NFU Mutual believes some ATVs are being stolen for export, but many others are being sold on in the UK.

Therefore, Mr Price urged farmers to carry out security checks using vehicle security registers, such as Datatag, before they purchase any used quad bikes, tractors or trailers.

Rural theft cost an estimated £42.3m in 2012 – an annual fall of 19.7% year on year.