How successful is the National Rural Crime Unit one year on?

Headed up by Northumbria police superintendent Andy Huddleston, the National Rural Crime Unit (NRCU) was formed, and continues to operate, against a backdrop of geopolitical unrest, a situation which has fuelled a major spate of machinery thefts and organised crime in the UK.

The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has created a new marketplace for rural thieves, now working on an organised basis, to ship stolen British agricultural machinery to Eastern Europe – something that, until recently, UK police forces could neither hope to stop, track, or recover.

See also: Frustrated Shropshire farmers team up to combat rural crime  

Costs associated with the theft of agricultural vehicles were reported to have risen by 29% in 2022 – worth an estimated £11.7m.

Despite the rise in thefts, industry experts say that the NRCU has been instrumental in leading a nationwide crackdown, utilising new powers to co-ordinate operations across multiple police forces and provide a driving force behind new and much needed legislation.

Dr Kate Tudor, a leading authority on rural crime and criminologist at Durham University, says that the unit has been an enormous force for good.

“They have absolutely changed the playing field in terms of policing,” she explains.

“If you think about what is going on in the sphere of rural crime, it is changing,” she says.  “A lot of that is to do with global geopolitical situations.

“Whenever political instabilities like the ones in Russia, Ukraine and anywhere else happen – things fall apart that need to be rebuilt, and so we see spikes in theft of agricultural machinery and vehicles – and we are definitely seeing that at the moment.

“That is not reflective of the performance of the NRCU at all – it is to do with the demand globally.”

Machinery theft

Leading the NRCU, superintendent Andy Huddleston says that a great deal of his time is spent working with the newly formed National Construction and Agricultural Theft (NCAT) team due to the scale and size of the machinery theft issue.

“What we are finding is that it is the same criminals and the same organised crime groups operating,” he explains.

“If you look at the figures since February 2022, we have seen a 203% increase in the theft of high-value agricultural and construction equipment in that period, which has massively increased the demand placed upon us.”

Last year alone, the unit recovered £6.2m worth of stolen equipment, including £900,000 worth of property recovered from Europe.

The team has also overseen the training of 500 police officers across the country, making them better able to identify and look out for thieves that are targeting machinery in rural areas.

However, due to Brexit, cross-border criminals were gaining the upper hand as there was previously no sharing of stolen property with forces overseas, unless the machine was road registered within Europe. 

“We have now put in place an arrangement and agreed a protocol where we share stolen property with Interpol, and that has led to the fact that we can actually recover stolen property from abroad, hence the £900,000 worth of recoveries for our team alone just last year,” explains Supt Huddleston.

Funding and expansion

Aside from an initial investment of £200,000 from the policing minister to help get the unit started, the NRCU relies solely on external funding and financial support to be able to operate.

So far, the unit has raised £1.6m of external finance to fund the next three years of its operation.

This funding has already translated into team expansion, with the NRCU welcoming a new livestock theft coordinator three weeks ago, with funding provided by NFU Mutual – which has also had heavy financial involvement with the formation of the machinery theft team.

The unit has also received £100,000 from Defra to put towards tackling fly-tipping.

“I would argue that fly-tipping, alongside machinery and livestock theft, is probably the second or third biggest issue and priority for the farming community,” explains Supt Huddleston.

“We’ve seen an increase in many places often linked to changes in terms of how waste is disposed of and also the cost of disposal.”


Tackling the movements of organised criminal gangs on a national, and more local level, is just one piece of the puzzle that the NRCU is piecing together.

Rural crime – and in particular the increased spate in machinery theft – requires a unified approach from industry, and Supt Huddleston says that it is not an issue that police can arrest their way out of.

Subsequently the NRCU has been instrumental in writing and bringing about the Equipment Theft Prevention Bill of 2023.

“Quite frankly, this is something I have been pushing for many years,” explains Supt Huddleston.

“We absolutely know that some of the manufacturers have an unscrupulous business practice – they don’t want to improve security on machinery because every time a farmer has one stolen, they sell another one.

“We’re not just fighting criminals – we’re fighting manufacturers.”

This incoming piece of legislation is a major triumph for the NRCU, and will mean that agricultural and construction machinery manufacturers will be forced to fit immobilisers and forensically mark machinery if they wish to sell it in the UK.

Aside from this, Supt Huddleston says that he has been working closely with the Home Office to support new powers for police officers to force entry where they believe stolen property to be.

“That is another key piece of legislation that we need in place,” he explains.


While the NRCU operates on a national level to coordinate police forces, some farmers have expressed frustration with the police response in their area on a local level, and there is a clear correlation between a force’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) and effective rural policing.

“Thames Valley has an inspector and 18 staff on their rural crime team, which is the biggest in the country,” explains Supt Huddleston.

“It is no surprise that it is doing fantastically well, but that is linked to the Police and Crime Commissioner being absolutely right behind that, and the Chief Constable seeing it as a priority as well.

“Their figures and their community’s confidence in rural policing is very high as a result of that.”

Police and Crime Commissioner elections

Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) have powers to set local policing priorities and budgets, and the upcoming elections on 2 May provide an opportunity for rural crime to be pushed further up the agenda for individual police forces.

There is a PCC for every police force area in England and Wales with the exceptions of London, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire, where equivalent powers are held by an elected mayor.

There are also different arrangements in the City of London.

Ahead of the elections, the NFU will be presenting a number of key asks to each of the candidates. These include:

  • Ensure priorities for addressing rural crime are detailed in the PCC’s Police & Crime Plan
  • Recruit a dedicated rural crime specialist
  • Engage regularly with the farming community and their representatives
  • Deliver an effective response to and investigation of crimes impacting farm businesses
  • Work with farm businesses on effective crime prevention strategies
  • Develop a strategy to counter the impact of organised crime groups in rural areas
  • Provide greater rural crime training for officers and control centres.

NFU Mutual 2023 rural crime report

The latest rural crime report, carried out last year by insurer NFU Mutual, has shed light on the upward trend and changing nature of rural crime.

It shows that just shy of £50m worth of goods were stolen in rural areas in 2022, a 22% increase on the previous year.

A survey of NFU Mutual agents, who are based in rural communities across the country, found that 70% knew farmers that had been repeat victims of rural crime – from theft to fly-tipping, and livestock worrying.

NFU Mutual Rural affairs specialist Hannah Binns said: “Rural theft is changing. It is not only opportunist thieves travelling a few miles.

“We are now seeing internationally organised criminal activity. These gangs target high-value farm machinery and GPS kits because they can be sold all over the world.

“Many items are stolen ‘to order’ by thieves using online technology to identify where farm machinery is stored and scope out the best way to steal it.

“They will also spend hours watching the movement of farming families to work out the best time to attack.”

Key findings from the report include the following:

  • The overall cost of rural crime in the UK reached an estimated £49.5m, rising from £40.5m in 2021
  • The cost of agricultural vehicle theft reported to NFU Mutual rose by 29% to £11.7m
  • The UK cost of GPS theft increased by 15% to £1.8m in 2022
  • Theft of quad bikes and ATVs cost £3m nationally, rising by 34% on the previous year
  • Fuel theft reportedly doubled on the previous year.
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