Rural crime rates have risen to their highest level for eight years according to the latest figures, which show that farm theft is costing the sector £54m annually.
The cost of crime in the countryside rose almost 9% in just 12 months, the 2020 Rural Crime Report, published by NFU Mutual on Tuesday (4 August), has revealed. And the economic effect of the coronavirus pandemic is likely to see crime rates escalate further, warned the rural insurer.
Criminal gangs are targeting expensive tractors, quad bikes and large numbers of livestock. Farm vehicle theft rose nearly 25% to £9.3m in 2019, says the report. But smaller, high-value items – including tractor GPS kits – are also being targeted.
NFU Mutual rural affairs specialist Rebecca Davidson said: “Rural crime is like a wave, as organised criminality spreads through our villages, farms and fells, affecting everyone in the countryside.”
Case study: GPS thefts hamper harvest progress
Thefts of tractor GPS equipment are proving a massive headache for Norfolk farmers – with 18 kits stolen from farms in the county.
The GPS electronic systems cost as much as £14,000 to replace. Their theft is also costing farmers money by delaying time-critical planting, spraying and harvesting operations while stolen equipment is replaced.
PC Jonathan Chandler from Norfolk Police’s rural crime team said: “Thefts are well organised and carefully researched by criminals who travel the countryside to spot tractors equipped with GPS, and then return at night to steal the kits.”
Farmers should mark their address or post code on their tools and equipment, PC Chandler advised. “Even if you just paint your post code on your tools and machines, it can make a huge difference. Sometimes the simplest tips are the best.”
She added: “We continue to work hard to stem the tide and are warning rural communities and helping with prevention advice – as there are concerns for the months ahead as the economic impact of coronavirus bites.”
The cost of rural crime rose in all UK countries and regions. The biggest percentage increase was seen in Scotland (44%), although it remains below the UK average. The second highest rise was 18% in Northern Ireland, followed by the East of England (16.9%).
Demand from overseas for expensive farm kit is fuelling the rise. In one joint operation between NFU Mutual and the National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service, five vehicles totalling more than £100,000 were recovered from Poland earlier this year.
As well as the £54m financial cost, Ms Davidson said crime was having a serious effect on the mental wellbeing of people living in rural and often isolated areas. It was likely the effects would be felt harder this year, as farmers had been working flat out, she added.
A survey of NFU Mutual agents last year found one-quarter knew someone who had been forced to change the way they lived or farmed as a result of crime, and the biggest fear in rural communities was repeat attacks.
Case study: Arson attack destroys straw and trailers
A suspected arson attack destroyed two straw trailers and two grain trailers at Berkyn Manor Farm, in Wraysbury, Berkshire.
Farmer Colin Rayner said the freshly baled straw was “dry as a bone” and had not had time to heat up. Two of the trailers were parked 10m apart at the time of the attack during the early hours of Monday (3 August).
Mr Rayner thanked Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service for preventing the fire from spreading to nearby farm buildings, a house, petrol tank, and combine header – which is vital and irreplaceable at this time of year.
Thames Valley Police are investigating the blaze. Mr Rayner’s cousins, Alan and John, worked with the fire service to extinguish the flames from about 1.30am. “We are all still in shock – the thought of someone coming on to the farm late at night to wander about and do this,” he said.
This year, provisional theft claims data for the first half of 2020 indicates that rural theft fell overall during the early part of the coronavirus lockdown – but was followed by a resurgence, including a spike in livestock rustling in April.
Ms Davidson said: “There’s no doubt that organised criminal gangs are targeting our countryside again.”
Police rural crime teams and improved farm security measures such as vehicle trackers were helping to prevent a bad situation becoming worse. But they also risk displacing organised criminality from one area to another.
- Quad bikes and ATVs are disappearing from farms in large numbers – thanks to being easy to transport and an absence of registration plates.
- Land Rover Defenders remain highly desirable to thieves, with Landies insured by NFU Mutual stolen in 2019 at a claims cost of £2.1m.
- Thieves are cloning the identity of new tractors to make detection more difficult – and exporting older machines to developing countries.
- Thefts of large numbers of lambs are raising concerns that stock is being stolen for slaughter before illegally entering the food chain.
NFU Mutual has invested £430,000 to tackle rural crime this year – including a UK-wide agricultural vehicle crime tracking and recovery unit. It has also provided funding for the welfare of stolen farm animals as police investigate and track down their owners.
Case study: Farmer loses two quad bikes in 12 months
Somerset beef and sheep farmer Richard Willcox had a replacement quad bike stolen – almost a year to the day after thieves made off with the original machine from his farm.
Mr Willcox rears dairy heifers and a flock of 80 ewes on a 90ha livestock farm near Highbridge. The first quad bike was stolen in broad daylight in May 2019. The second machine was stolen during the night from inside the workshop in May.
“I found the padlock on the gate broken and the quad was gone,” he said. “CCTV from the property opposite captured a white van entering and leaving the property and they were in and gone within just a few minutes. I have my suspicions that it was the same gang.”
Since the second theft, Mr Willcox has invested in a steel roller shutter on the workshop and a motion sensor inside that alerts him to any unexpected movement at night. The new quad also has a tracker installed.
Worst places for rural crime
Cost change (%)
- East Anglia £8.1m +16.9
- Midlands £10.6m +7.8
- North East £8.6m +0.4
- North West £3.5m +3.5
- Northern Ireland £3.3m +18.0
- Scotland £2.3m +44.1
- South East £8.7m +0.6
- South West £6.6m +14.0
- Wales £2.6m +11.1
Source: NFU Mutual