‘New breed of brazen criminals’ targeting farms

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Northern Ireland’s farmers are being targeted by “a new breed of brazen criminals” who are overcoming high-tech security measures to steal valuable equipment and vehicles.

That was the warning from leading rural insurer NFU Mutual as it launched its annual Rural Crime Report, which reveals a shocking rise in rural crime across the Province.

According to the document rural crime cost Northern Ireland a whopping £2.6m in 2017 – a rise of 5.3% from the previous year.

Despite many farmers having installed expensive security measures, criminals have found ways to overcome them and steal valuable equipment, with quad bikes and ATVs (all terrain vehicles), livestock and tractors top of the thieves’ wishlist.

The report reveals that in some areas farmers are now being forced to combine “medieval fortifications” with high-tech security to combat modern-day crime. Earth banks, stockade fences and high-security single access points are helping fortify their farms against criminals who use 4x4 vehicles to get onto farm land to commit crimes and evade police.

Lisburn farmer Gary Kerr had two trailers stolen – a box trailer and a flatbed – using his own 4x4 pickup truck. The brazen thieves also attempted to load his tractor onto the flatbed and take it away.

“The trailers weren’t in their usual place as they had been moved away from the building to stop them being damaged during high winds, so it would be hard to say whether it was an opportunistic theft. There did seem to be a degree of planning. A neighbour had his car stolen around the same time and that was recovered 40 miles away a few months later, but there was never any sign of the trailers,” he explained.

“There isn’t a Farm Watch scheme in place, but we do hear about suspicious activity going on from time to time. The response from the police and NFU Mutual was good, but we decided to only replace one of the trailers in the end,” Gary added.

With the cost of rural crime in Northern Ireland continuing to climb, many farmers are now combining age-old security methods with high-tech systems such as CCTV cameras, motion sensors, immobilisers on vehicles, tracking devices and even DNA markers for livestock. Protective animals such as geese, llamas and dogs are being used to provide a useful low-tech alarm system, much as they did hundreds of years ago.

“There is widespread concern in Northern Ireland that a new breed of brazen criminals are targeting the countryside and they are overcoming electronic security measures to steal expensive equipment and vehicles,” said Martin Malone, NFU Mutual sales manager in Northern Ireland.

“Adapting centuries-old security with high-tech solutions is already proving successful in keeping at bay thieves who don’t fear being caught on camera and have the skills to overcome electronic security systems.”

The report also reveals that limited police resources and repeat attacks are the biggest fears for people in rural communities, with many forced to change the way they live and work as a result of rural crime. “We are working closely with police to identify preventative measures and to educate the rural community on how best to protect their property and possessions,” Mr Malone continued.

“Social media, for example, is fast becoming the new eyes and ears of the countryside, strengthening the community ties that help in the reporting and recording of crime and bringing thieves to justice.”

Ulster Farmers’ Union Legislation Chairman, James O’Brien, warned that rural crime remains a big issue for Northern Ireland.

He added: “Rural crime has a lasting impact on farming families, who can literally find their livelihoods threatened overnight. Criminals are sophisticated in the homes and businesses they target. They are selective about what they take and will not think twice about targeting the same farm again, sometimes within days. The net result is that across all rural areas people now feel isolated and vulnerable in their own homes,” said Mr O’Brien.

In the past, the UFU has expressed concern that rural crime and its consequences are not treated with sufficient seriousness when criminals are brought before the courts. It warns that these are far from victimless crimes and underlines that while farmers have a responsibility to protect their own property there are limits to what they can do. “This reflects the nature and layout of farm. The opportunist thief can be deterred, but with many thefts now from locked buildings criminals are using increasingly sophisticated methods to gain access,” he said.

The Legislation Chairman said he welcomed targeted initiatives, including trailer marking, freeze branding livestock and the use of tracker devices on tractors and other machinery. He also said there were welcome signs that Crimestoppers and the PSNI had a greater focus on rural crime. “That said, we remain deeply unhappy that despite the efforts farmers take to protect their property and the PSNI targeting of rural criminals the sentences courts impose do not reflect the scale of this threat to rural life and livelihoods,” said Mr O’Brien.

Commenting on the NFU Mutual insurance’s annual UK rural crime survey, Supt. Brian Kee, PSNI Service Lead for Rural and Wildlife Crime said: “According to this annual survey, rural theft cost the Northern Ireland economy £2.6m in 2017. According to the NFU, the figure stood at £2.5 million in 2016.

“Rural crime can have a detrimental impact on a family, a community and a farming business. And that impact can be more than just financial, that’s why we remain committed to reducing incidents of crime in rural areas. We continue to work closely with NFU Mutual and partners in the Rural Crime Partnership to identify preventative measures and to educate the rural community on how best to protect their property and possessions.

“According to the Police Service of Northern Ireland statistics, the 12 months up to 31 December 2017 showed a decrease of 63 to 497 crimes against the farming community when compared with the 12 months to 31 December 2016. The number of burglary, robbery and theft offences relating to agricultural-based activity has shown an overall downwards trend since 2010/11, when 937 such offences were recorded. The lowest level recorded was in 2015/16 (514 offences).

“According to the NFU report, quad bikes and ATV (all-terrain vehicles) were among the items which were targeted by thieves. In response to this concern, we have been working with our colleagues in the Rural Crime Partnership, and in May of this year, a subsidised support scheme, especially for people living in rural areas, was launched. The scheme aims to help tackle the growing number of quad and trailer theft by encouraging owners to fit an electronic tracking device to proactively deter theft and assist police with recovery should an item be stolen. To help combat the trend, RCP subsidises the cost of having a tracking device supplied and fitted to smaller items of agricultural equipment,” he added.

“Statistics only tell part of the story, they do not account for the severe impact theft can have on a farming business, family and community. There is no acceptable level of crime in the rural community or indeed elsewhere. And for PSNI, one victim is one too many.”