It is hard to imagine that underground cable would be an easy steal, but the disappearance of almost four miles of BT telephone cable from fields in east Yorkshire confirms the escalating crime wave spreading across the British countryside.
Whether it is clever criminals hitting specific, high-value rural targets or more opportunistic thieves taking advantage of low levels of security wherever they find it, rural crime is now commanding a new and re-focused strategy by many police forces across the UK.
This vigorous and determined campaign against rural crime and the promise by the police to follow up any suspicious sightings of individuals or vehicles is a heartening commitment.
To help combat the rural crime wave, a Farm Watch scheme has been launched in the north of England.
It encourages rural communities to become more vigilant in their crime awareness, to adopt stringent security measures and in some cases to use their mobile phones to text information where there is an immediate threat of criminal activity. The new Farm Watch scheme will instigate a much-needed and co-ordinated approach to crime prevention.
Five years ago Sgt David Jenkins took over a rural neighbourhood policing scheme covering 300 sq miles in east Yorkshire. It was part of a nationwide policy to strengthen local policing in the wake of the closure of many small police stations.
The area of east Yorkshire allocated to Sgt Jenkins was being targeted by organised deer poaching.
Farmers, landowners and the local police joined forces and the new Farm Watch group was established. The fear of crime in the area has seen numbers soar to 700 members spread across an area of just over 1,000 sq miles in east Yorkshire.
It has now reformed into seven local Farm Watch groups. One of their key roles concerns the monitoring of suspicious vehicles.
“Farm Watch members are assured that any information passed on to the police will be followed up. We find that the more we respond to a call the more calls we get and that means the more effective we can be in combating crime.
“Our crime detection is now supported by incidents that are reported to us and that enables us to build up patterns of crime. With this information we are more effective in deploying whatever policing methods are most appropriate.”
Sgt Jenkins, an incident response team scheme officer and force deputy director of wildlife crime in the East Riding of Yorkshire, says deer poaching and hare coursing remains the most widespread crime in the countryside – but this is a crime with much wider connotations as he has proved many times.
“Poaching is just the tip of the iceberg and is very often linked to other forms of criminality. We’ve proved this time and time again as we link non-poaching crimes back to poaching. Some night-time poachers come back in the daytime and carry out further criminal activity or pass on information gained during poaching and trespass to other criminals,” says Sgt Jenkins.
He believes poaching – and its associated criminal activity – is a crime that is often underestimated in the eyes of the public and even some police officers.
“There is a much bigger picture here that must be acknowledged. Poaching is at the core of rural crime,” he says.
Daytime vehicle road-checks are deployed in conjunction with Customs and Excise roads fuel team in east Yorkshire to ensure there is a constant monitoring of vehicle movements in rural areas.
Night-time cordons are also undertaken to monitor all traffic movement across a certain area.
The seven Farm Watch groups organised by Sgt Jenkins meet every two months. At one recent meeting of the Driffield group, 70 members attended. There are a total of 168 members in the Driffield Farm Watch group.
“That’s a reflection of how committed farmers and landowners are to Farm Watch. And the more we have involved, the better coverage and surveillance of the area. Everyone is looking after each other.”
Texting is proving to be very effective. “If anyone sees a dodgy vehicle in the yard or in a situation that gives rise for concern, details of the vehicle can be sent by text immediately to the group co-ordinator,” he says.
The value of texting was proved recently when daytime poachers were reported to the police by a Farm Watch member.
The poachers were reported for summons and left the area but their details were sent by text to other Farm Watch groups.
Later the same day, thanks to the vigilance of a group member, the same poachers were seen again in another part of the county. The police were informed and the poachers were apprehended, reported for summons again and their vehicle and equipment confiscated.
The Farm Watch group meetings ensure practical security information is constantly updated among members. “We refer to it as target hardening – a system of making likely targets for thieves more difficult to steal. But we know that it’s virtually impossible to make everything on a farm secure so we encourage farmers to try and make it more difficult for machinery or other goods to be taken.
“Thieves like to be in and out, they don’t like to hang around, and so making it more difficult can be the most effective deterrent.”
And there seems to be no limit to what thieves believe they can gain easy access to under cover of darkness in the countryside. “Cable theft is now at a chronic stage in terms of the number of incidents reported. Power cables have a value for their scrap metal content but while one recent incident involved 6km of 5cm thick telephone cable worth £49,000 extracted from below ground, we’ve also had a case of a thief receiving severe burns after trying to steal a live-cable.”
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