Farmers across Northern Ireland are being forced to turn their properties into fortresses to protect themselves from serial thieves, it has been claimed.
And fear of having their farms staked out by criminals is causing major anxiety for people living in rural areas.
The warnings come as a new report shows that rural crime cost £2.5 million in Northern Ireland last year.
Although the 2016 figure is down 15% on 2015, the cost of theft from farms across the UK has risen sharply in first half of 2017.
ATVs (all terrain vehicles) and power tools were among the items most commonly targeted by thieves in Northern Ireland.
The report’s authors, NFU Mutual, said countryside criminals continue to become more brazen and farmers are now having to continually increase security and adopt new ways of protecting their equipment.
“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,” said Martin Malone, NFU Mutual regional manager for Northern Ireland.
Newry & Armagh Assemblyman William Irwin described the report as “deeply concerning”.
The report reveals that being “staked out” is the biggest worry for country people, followed closely by longer police response times in rural areas.
The threat of becoming a victim of rural crime, and regular reports of suspicious characters watching farms, is said to be “causing high levels of anxiety amongst farmers” who know their rural location makes them vulnerable to attacks.
Mr Irwin, a former chairman of Stormont’s agriculture committee, said rural crime, as shown by the latest figures, “continues to be a deeply concerning issue for the farming community and rural dwellers generally”.
The DUP representative, whose own farm has been targeted by thieves, said: “I had a vehicle stolen on one occasion from my farm and on another occasion thieves attempted to steal a tractor but caught the wheel on another piece of machinery puncturing the tyre. Thankfully they failed to take the tractor but I know that many others have had valuable machinery stolen and some have been repeatedly targeted by thieves.”
Mr Irwin added: “Rural crime is a costly crime to the victim and in particular it causes great inconvenience and distress.
“It is vital that the PSNI immediately puts adequate resources towards stamping out rural crime and it is vital that the criminal networks actively targeting our rural community are weeded out and brought before the courts.”
Horse boxes and tractors were also among the high value items stolen from farms.
NFU Mutual’s early theft claims statistics for the first half of this year show a UK-wide sharp rise of over 20%, raising concerns that a “new wave of rural crime is hitting the countryside”.
The north east of England was the worst affected region with rural crime costing £7.3m last year, while the lowest cost of the nine main regions was Wales with £1.3m.
Scotland also fared better than Northern Ireland with a total loss of £1.6m compared to the Province’s £2.5m. The UK-wide total was just over £39 million.
NFU manager Mr Malone said: “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.”
In March last year, around 200 farms in the Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Council area took part in a “forensic marking” pilot scheme in an effort to protect their property.
At the time, the then justice minister David Ford acknowledged the “devastating impact,” of farm thefts, and said: “Used in conjunction with warning signs, forensic marking is an effective theft deterrent and can aid in assisting the police in tracing the rightful owners of recovered property.”