The Ulster Farmers’ Union says the latest rural crime statistics underline the need for tougher action when criminals are brought before the courts.
The figures form part of NFU Mutual’s annual Rural Crime Report, published on Monday, reveal that despite the UK seeing a 4% drop last year, the cost of rural theft has risen sharply in the first half of 2017.
They show rural crime has cost Northern Ireland £2.5m in 2016, which is down almost 15% from £3m in 2015.
However UFU president Barclay Bell says it is too easy to view this as a victimless crime that is generally covered by insurance – but he warns that crime leaves people feeling vulnerable in their homes.
“For some time we have been critical of the lenient sentences handed down by the courts, and we have been pressing for a change of approach,” says the UFU president.
He says the situation is worsened here by the ability of thieves to take livestock and expensive machinery across the border, despite recent cooperation by the police and respective agriculture department to prevent this happening.
“We welcome initiatives such as trailer marking, freeze branding livestock and the use of tracker devices on tractors and other machinery. However we remain unhappy that despite the efforts of farmers to make their property secure, and the efforts of the PSNI, the sentences the courts hand out do not reflect an attitude that this is a crime that needs to be taken seriously,” says Mr Bell.
The UFU says it recognises that in an era when all public sector budgets are under pressure that there are limits to what the PSNI can do to protect the countryside, which by definition is open.
“We would however like to see more cooperation between the police and the authorities on both sides of the border, so that they can target criminals more effectively. We also believe the Department of Justice needs to amend sentencing guidelines for the courts. These are crimes that need to be taken seriously, because of the social and economic damage they create – and the fact that we know that if confronted criminals are prepared to use violence,” says Mr Bell.
According to NFU Mutual’s 2017 Rural Crime Report, early theft claims statistics for the first half of this year show a sharp rise of over 20% nationally, raising concerns that a new wave of rural crime is hitting the countryside.
The items most commonly targeted by thieves across Northern Ireland over the last 12 months were ATV (All Terrain Vehicles) and quad bikes, livestock and tools.
Martin Malone, NFU Mutual regional manager for Northern Ireland, said: “Although the figures for rural crime in Northern Ireland are down, countryside criminals continue to become more brazen and farmers are now having to continually increase security and adopt new ways of protecting their equipment.
“The reduction in the cost of rural crime in Northern Ireland is a tribute to the efforts of farmers to improve security and the work of the Northern Ireland Rural Crime Partnership, which NFU Mutual supports.
“However, in some parts of the region, farmers are having to turn their farmyards into fortresses to protect themselves from repeated thieves who are targeting quads, tractors and power tools. They are using tracking devices on tractors, video and infra-red surveillance in their farm yards and even DNA markers to protect sheep from rustlers.”
The report reveals that being ‘staked out’ is the biggest worry for country people, followed closely by longer police response times in rural areas, according to the leading rural insurer. Criminals continue to target Land Rover Defenders, quad bikes, tractors, tools and livestock despite increased security on farms.
Martin added: “The threat of becoming a victim of rural crime, and regular reports of suspicious characters watching farms is causing high levels of anxiety amongst farmers who know their rural location makes them vulnerable to attacks.
“Our advice to people living and working in the countryside is to regularly evaluate your current security measures making improvements where necessary, remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to the local police and local farm watch schemes.”
For more information and advice on how to beat rural crime in your area download the report at www.nfumutual.co.uk/ruralcrime.