Farmers are counting the cost of a sharp increase in countryside crime ranging from livestock rustling to the theft of tractors, quad bikes, GPS equipment and Land Rovers.
There was a spike in the theft of sheep during the lockdown as gangs took advantage of deserted communities, empty roads and concerns about food shortages during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Across the UK, the cost of rural crime in the UK rose by almost 9% to £54m in 2019 compared with the previous year – an eight-year high, according to new figures from NFU Mutual. The insurer said crime in the countryside could escalate further as the economic impact of Covid-19 hits, which would put more pressure on farmers and rural communities.
Rebecca Davidson, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, said: “The lockdown resulted in an initial reduction in thefts overall. But criminals continued to target the countryside and there were spikes in crimes such as livestock rustling. As the economic impact of the pandemic begins to bite, we are concerned that criminal activity could escalate.”
In its latest report, NFU Mutual said rural crime rose in every region and nation within the UK. The biggest percentage increase took place in Scotland (44%), although its rural crime cost remains below the UK average. The second-highest regional rise was 18% in Northern Ireland, followed by the east of England (17%).
For the second year running, the sharp rises are believed to being driven by organised criminal gangs targeting valuable tractors, quad bikes and other farm vehicles. Demand from overseas for expensive farm kit is fuelling the rise. The theft of highly collectible Land Rover Defenders rose by 34%.
Livestock theft increased in 2019 with the cost going up to £3m. Well-organised gangs are clearly behind many of the thefts, where animals are often butchered in the fields and sold illegally. Initial figures suggest an increase of nearly 15% year-on-year in April 2020.
Theft of tractor global positioning systems is another significant concern. Typically costing up to £10,000, GPS equipment has become a highly prized item on the shopping lists of rural thieves.
Glenn Buckingham, who farms in Suffolk, had GPS equipment worth £9,800 stolen from his combine harvester last month. He said: “We were all ready to start harvesting and went into the barn to find that the combine GPS system had been ripped out. We had to wait two weeks to get a replacement system.”
James Kimber, a livestock farmer from Wiltshire, who lost 15 ewes and 24 lambs last year, said: “They must have come along with a trailer and just loaded them up. I’ve been told the animals may have ended up in what is apparently quite a thriving black market in stolen meat.”
Richard Willcox, who farms near Highbridge, Somerset, had a quad bike stolen in May – almost exactly a year to the day that one was taken in 2019.
“I have my suspicions that it was the same gang that returned this year,” he said. “The quad is such a vital piece of kit that they must have known that I would replace it. It is unsettling to think that people might be staking out the farm and trying to work out what we have here, particularly as it’s not just a place of work but my home too.”