Rural crime jumped to an eight-year high last year as criminal gangs stole UK farm equipment to sell overseas.
Figures from insurer NFU Mutual show that rural crime cost the UK £54m in 2019, a 9 per cent rise on the previous year. The insurer warned that this year’s figures would be affected by the coronavirus crisis, which has sparked an increase in livestock rustling and the theft of some types of equipment.
Rebecca Davidson, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, said: “The main driver is organised criminal gangs targeting the countryside. Ten years ago they caught on to the fact that farm machinery is worth tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds and there is a very strong market for it overseas.”
Over the past few weeks, NFU Mutual has recovered a mini-excavator in France and a quad bike in Lithuania, both of which were stolen in the UK.
Some criminals used sophisticated techniques to move goods overseas, often “cloning” vehicles by etching new identification numbers on to stolen equipment.
Other methods are more basic — one gang put Range Rovers into a lorry that was supposed to hold mattresses.
The cost of agricultural vehicle theft rose from £7.4m to £9.3m last year. There was also a 31 per cent rise in the theft of Land Rover Defenders, which are in high demand. “There is a burgeoning black market for parts,” said Ms Davidson. “They’re a cult vehicle — they have an amazing history.”
Lincolnshire, Essex, North Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire were the most affected English counties, each recording more than £2m of thefts, while crimes in Northamptonshire and Wiltshire more than doubled. Thefts in Scotland rose by more than 44 per cent to £2.3m.
The coronavirus crisis has caused a rise in the theft of smaller items such as quad bikes and global positioning systems for tractors, which can cost up to £10,000.
The lockdown has also led to an increase in livestock rustling. “There are fears that meat is being stolen for the black market,” said Ms Davidson. “We don’t know the full story of where it is ending up. It’s a really concerning trend.”
Stuart Roberts, deputy president of the National Farmers Union, which is a separate organisation from NFU Mutual, said: “Rural crime has devastating impacts for farm businesses and those living in rural communities. These figures confirm what we have been hearing from our members, that this problem is getting much worse across the country.”
He added: “It is becoming increasingly clear that the current police strategy to combat rural crime is not working. Police leaders and the government need to take rural crime more seriously and recognise that the organised criminals carrying out these crimes view rural businesses as an easy target.”