John Craven: The worrying surge in rural crime

Robbery is a constant cause of anxiety for farmers, says John Craven as he investigates the surge in rural crime.

Rural countryside scene with farm house

A much-loved sheepdog and the latest piece of kit for satellite-assisted farming have an unwelcome connection – both were targets in an alarming surge in rural crime that is sweeping across the nation at a cost of £50m last year.

That’s the highest level since 2011, says Tim Price, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, which compiles the figures. “Now we are seeing another rise as organised gangs of villains with links to money laundering and drugs find ways to beat security. Theft claims are coming in thick and fast from farms both close to urban areas and in very remote locations.”

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The gangs are hard to track down because often they pay local thieves to do their dirty work. Robbery is a constant cause of anxiety for farmers; one recently told investigators that his family can’t go to their local show together because they know that, if they do, their farm will be raided.

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High-cost machinery is the favourite target, but gangs are also slaughtering flocks of sheep in the fields to sell on the black market – and sheep dogs are also being stolen, often to order. Leicestershire farmers Jimmy and Esther Pritt were on holiday last year when they got word that their collie cross, called Rabbit, had gone missing.

Rabbit the sheepdog who was stolen from a farm
Rabbit the sheepdog, valued at £5000 and much loved by her owners, was stolen from her farm in Leicestershire this year. (Credit: Tim Price)

The thieves knew what they were looking for; of the five dogs on the farm, Rabbit was the best-trained and worth up to £5,000. She was the only one taken. “We were devastated to lose her,” says Esther. “She was a huge part of our family and our farm. And she was my husband’s best friend. Rabbit and Jimmy meant the world to each other. We’ve struggled hugely to get by in her absence and worry about her all the time.”

The Pritts have offered a reward and spent many hours searching for Rabbit. They think it’s likely she’s working in Cheshire or Wales but are no closer to bringing her home.

Security initiatives

At the other end of the spectrum, arable farmer Matthew Fry and his team parked their tractors in a locked shed one night and returned the next morning to find £50,000 worth of GPS equipment, used for precision ploughing, sowing and harvesting, had been stolen from them. Two other farms nearby were also hit that night.

Once Matthew had replaced the kit, he dug ditches around the farm and stored the GPS units in a vault with four locks between them and potential thieves. But installing the GPS units on to the tractors and removing them every time they’re needed means hours of extra work. “It’s a shame we have to go to such measures,” says Matthew. “But we now feel we’ve done everything possible to keep the thieves at bay.”

Criminals look for easy targets so they tend to avoid rural homes and business that have state-of-the-art locks and security devices, such as sensors and CCTV. Sharing concerns about thefts with neighbours and forming watch groups helps; simply observing and reporting anything suspicious foils many burglaries.

Farm security - CCTV sign
Criminals tend to avoid rural homes and business that have state-of-the-art locks and security devices, such as sensors and CCTV(Photo by: Getty Images)

NFU Mutual’s Tim Price examines dozens of incidents every day. “Amid the gloom of rising levels of crime over the past year, there are beacons of light,” he says. “Fighting back individually, local farmwatch schemes and well-organised police rural security initiatives can beat crime in the countryside.”

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Watch John on Countryfile, Sunday evenings on BBC1, or find out what’s on Countryfile this week and when here.