PUBLISHING its annual crime report for 2022, rural insurer NFU Mutual revealed that the cost of rural crime crept up by 16% across the South West, with a cost of £880,000 to Devon and Cornwall alone.
Across the UK, the cost of rural theft increased by 22% to an estimated £49.5m, a level similar to that before the pandemic.
The rise comes against a background of soaring values and a low supply of farm machinery worldwide.
NFU Mutual claims that this has driven criminal gangs to respond by establishing illicit global markets for farm machinery and technology equipment.
Breaking the statistics down:
- The UK cost of agricultural vehicle theft reported to NFU Mutual soared by 29% to £11.7m in 2022.
- The UK cost of GPS theft increased by 15% to £1.8m. The problem has sharply escalated in the first four months of 2023, with the cost of GPS theft doubling to over £500,000 compared to the same period last year. Farms across Devon and Cornwall have also been targeted for the sophisticated equipment, which typically costs over £10,000 and is used to guide tractors and combine harvesters. Without it, farmers face severe delays and disruption to harvesting and cultivating work, with long waits for replacement kit.
- Quad and ATV theft reported to NFU Mutual cost £3m nationally, a 34% rise on the previous year.
- The UK cost of livestock theft rose 8.7% in 2022, totalling an estimated £2.7m. Claims reported to NFU Mutual regularly involve over 50 sheep being taken in a single raid, which has a devastating impact on breeding lines as well as causing huge worry for farmers about the welfare of the stolen animals.
On Dartmoor, a project set up by Devon & Cornwall Police and supported by NFU Mutual has trialled a range of security measures and as a result none of the farms taking part in the pilot has suffered livestock theft.
Ian Maddever, a Westcountry Senior Agent for NFU Mutual, said: ‘Highly-organised gangs are causing disruption to farming and widespread concern to people who live and work in the countryside.
‘Rural theft is changing. It is not only opportunist thieves travelling a few miles, we are now seeing internationally organised criminal activity. These gangs target high-value farm machinery and GPS kits because they can be sold all over the world.
‘Loss of vital machinery and GPS equipment causes huge disruption to farmers who are already stretched to the limit and replacing kit in the current economic situation can take months, adding additional stress.’
Martin Beck of Devon & Cornwall Police’s Rural Crime Team said: ‘Any increase in the cost of crime is unwelcome and the NFU Mutual report is a reminder of that; although we live in a lower crime area compared with other parts of England we must work together and harder to tackle rural crime. The NFU Mutual report has showed how insurance claims to them have increased across England and Wales.
‘Devon and Cornwall has seen crime reported in rural areas returning to what we saw before the Covid pandemic with the number of rural crimes reported to the police being similar to last year. With the price of goods rising the costs to insurers has subsequently increased. Insurers are also seeing claims for more high-value goods being stolen and damaged, such as farm tractor GPS, which have increased greatly in the past 18 months.’
‘We’re encouraging people to join our ‘Devon and Cornwall Alert Community Messaging’ service (https://alerts.dc.police.uk) which allows us to share crime prevention messages and crime appeals specific to where you live. We would also ask people to take the time to review their security and consider prevention as their first measure to prevent their property from being stolen.’
Ian Maddever added: ‘Many items are stolen ‘to order’ by thieves using online technology to identify where farm machinery is stored and scope out the best way to steal it. They will also spend hours watching the movement of farming families to work out the best time to attack.
‘Those targeted by criminals may often second guess themselves in the aftermath of an incident as well as live in fear of repeat attacks on what is not only their workplace but also their family home.
‘That’s why we are working with farmers to help protect their livelihoods, sharing our advice and expertise as the main insurer of the UK’s farmers and offering support.’
Devon Farmer David Chugg has been the victim of multiple crimes on his mixed arable and livestock farm proving that once thieves have a target in their sights they can return again and again.
In recent years on his 350-acre farm between Ilfracombe and Barnstaple in North Devon he has lost sheep, a John Deere Gator worth £17,000 and as recently as a month ago thieves stole a 15ft steel field gate from its hangings.
David, who is the deputy chairman of the Devon branch of the National Farmers’ Union, said he believed thieves were becoming more brazen, walking into farmyards and helping themselves to whatever they could find.
He said: 'I remember the first time we were hit very clearly because the gator was used by my father, John, who has since died. He drove it from his bungalow, a little way away from the farm, to the farm every day and then used it to get about the farm.
'He parked it in the same place every night, outside the bungalow. One morning I went to my parents’ house and thought my father must have already left, because the gator wasn’t there. It had been parked right outside my parents’ bedroom window. It was locked and the keys were in the bungalow but the thief was still able to get it away. We think the thief may have rolled it away, rather than starting it up. My parents didn’t hear a thing.
'Thefts of equipment like gators and quad bikes is rife. These are high value items and they’re being stolen all the time. It’s shocking.
'We have installed security cameras in the yard now, but it is still a worry for so many farmers, especially given the value of so much of the equipment on a farm.'
He added it was not always possible to keep the thieves at bay, even by padlocking sheds and gates, but greater vigilance in the countryside could help, along with the use of security lighting and cameras.
NFU Mutual also recommends either forensically marking, painting or scratching your farm name or post code onto agricultural equipment such as GPS, trailers and other farm vehicles, to make them less attractive to thieves and harder to sell on.