Rural crime down in 2020 - but organised gangs are now using new tactics
- Credit: Archant
Organised crime gangs continued to plague farmyards in Suffolk and Essex by targeting expensive GPS equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic, a rural insurer has said.
During lockdown, thieves turned their attention to smaller, high-value targets such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS), which left harvests delayed and some farmers unable to work, NFU Mutual said.
Latest statistics from the company's rural crime report, published today, revealed that although the cost of rural theft in both Suffolk and Essex dropped in 2020 - the counties remain two of the worst affected in the country.
The cost of rural theft in Essex fell significantly in 2020, with a near 40% drop to an estimated £1.65million in 2020.
While Suffolk saw a much smaller drop of 0.4% from 2019, with rural theft costing the county an estimated £1.44m in 2020.
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This means Essex and Suffolk were ranked below only Lincolnshire (£2.48m) and Cambridgeshire (£2.01m) in the top four of worst-hit areas for rural theft.
Across the East of England, an estimated £6.4m cost was recorded in 2020 - a 21% decrease from the previous year, while in the UK, the estimated bill was £43.3m last year, which represented a drop of 20.3% from 2019.
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Dog attacks on livestock and fly-tipping also rose sharply across the country.
The value of sheep and cattle attacked by dogs shot up by 10% in 2020 to £1.3m in a year which saw a surge in pet ownership and countryside visits.
Rebecca Davidson, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, said: "Coronavirus restrictions, beefed-up security on farms and more effective police rural crime teams provided a welcome fall in rural thefts last year.
"While lockdown may have locked some criminals out of the countryside - rural crime hasn't gone away.
"Thieves are now returning armed with new tactics and targets. As the economic impact of the pandemic bites, we are very concerned that rural theft may escalate significantly.
"Last year saw sharp rises in other crimes such as dog attacks on livestock which caused appalling suffering to farm animals and huge anxiety for farmers and their families as they dealt with the aftermath.
"Organised criminal gangs also continued to target farmyards for high-value GPS systems, quad bikes and tractors with the cost of agricultural vehicle theft remaining at over £9m - only a 2% drop in cost from 2019."
Sergeant Paul Brady, from Essex Police's rural engagement team, said the significant drop in rural theft was "positive news".
“Essex has 250,000 hectares of farmed areas with 1,750 farmers and 72% of land in the county is classified as rural," he said.
“These figures represent positive news for our rural community as it shows the cost of rural crime has fallen by nearly 40%. That’s double the average across the East of England and more than the national average.
“But we know the impact having a piece of machinery, which can see losses run into the thousands of pounds, can have.
“We are working closely with six other forces in the region to combat cross border criminals and we run operations at ports to open containers and have successfully recovered stolen plant vehicles.
“We have also conducted many engagement exercises to meet with farmers etc to encourage good security with regards GPS systems.
“Our force is growing, and this has included an expansion of the rural engagement team which has cemented us as the single point of contact for repeat victims within the community. This approach will provide stability, reassurance, and confidence.
“We also have specialist detectives who investigate organised crime and organised criminal groups."
A spokesman for Suffolk police said: “We recognise that people living in remote areas may feel particularly vulnerable because of their isolation and we work to reduce the chances of individuals and landowners becoming victims, while taking robust enforcement action against offenders.
"At the heart of what we do is to get communities to support each other, encouraging people to report anything suspicious to enable us to tackle crime by making our patrols as effective as possible in our efforts to keep people safe and protected.
“Our rural and wildlife crime team engage with farmers and landowners in rural locations providing crime prevention and support – this allows for better coordination of resources, cross border policing and partnership working.
“The dedicated rural crime team also train other officers on issues such as hare coursing and hunting, meaning officers initially called to such an incident have the confidence and knowledge to immediately investigate such a crime. “