Rural crime costs are increasing, NFU report reveals

UFU deputy president Victor Chestnutt
UFU deputy president Victor Chestnutt

The latest NFU Mutual Society’s crime report has revealed that the cost of rural crime to Northern Ireland’s rural economy in 2018 increased to £2,757,000.

According to UFU deputy president, Victor Chestnutt, the report again highlights the real threat that rural thieves pose to Northern Ireland’s farmers and rural dwellers.

He added: “With more and more high value items such as tractors, quad bikes, and indeed livestock falling victim to the actions of rural thieves, it is hardly surprising that farmers and rural dwellers feel isolated and anxious on their own farms.”

The UFU says it is concerned that despite PSNI figures showing a decrease in rural crime incidents, the figures released by NFU Mutual suggest that rural crime in Northern Ireland is anything but under control.

Mr Chestnutt added: “So far this year there have been several high value thefts involving tractors as well as a number of large livestock thefts with repeat attacks all too often becoming a reality for many farmers. The financial aspect of rural crime can spell disaster for those affected, threatening livelihoods overnight and often there is a lasting impact on well-being that is difficult to measure.”

Mr Chestnutt says when farmers, the PSNI, and the local community work in collaboration the activities of rural thieves can be stopped. 

“I would encourage all farmers and rural dwellers to ensure that all incidences of rural crime and any information anyone may hold in relation to rural crime is reported and shared with the PSNI,” the Union’s deputy President commented.

The UFU says rural crime initiatives such as trailer marking, and the freeze branding of livestock are positive, but members should also consider joining their local Farm Watch scheme.

“Despite these positive public initiatives, more needs to be done. We would encourage farmers to step up security on their farms. While the UFU will continue to lobby the Department of Justice, and its partner agencies, to ensure that when rural thieves are brought before the courts the sentences handed down to them are reflective of the scale and impact of their actions,” concluded Mr Chestnutt.

Across the UK, the impact of rural theft has hit a seven-year high. The NFU Mutual’s latest figures reveal that rural crime cost the UK £50m in 2018. This is an increase of 12% on the previous year, making it the highest cost burden on the farming sector in seven years.

The Mutual is attributing these sharp rises to the high value thefts of tractors, quad bikes and other farm vehicles – up 26% to £7.4m in 2018.

Tim Price, Rural Affairs Specialist at NFU Mutual, said: “The last time rural theft reached the current level was in 2011 when international gangs took advantage of a largely unsecured countryside. Today, we are seeing another rise as organised criminal gangs with links to money laundering and drugs find ways to beat security and steal farm vehicles.

“Farmers and country people are suffering from high levels of anxiety due to repeated thefts by gangs who take advantage of  farms’ isolated locations to steal machinery, raid tool stores and even butcher sheep in the fields.

“In a single generation, country people have seen rural crime change from the opportunist theft of a single lamb, to brazen heists of tractors worth over £100,000 and rustlers stealing hundreds of sheep.

“We are even seeing agricultural vehicles being stolen to smash into village shops to rob cash machines. As well as causing huge structural damage to buildings, these raids can lead to shop owners not replacing ATMs for fear of further attacks.”

One of the most alarming findings from this year’s report is that fear of crime is changing life in the countryside. From constant reports of thefts and suspicious vehicles touring the countryside to rural criminals regularly staking out farms, country people feel they are under siege.  

Tim Price added: “Our survey of 300 local NFU Mutual agents, who work closely with rural communities, has revealed that repeat attacks are causing widespread anxiety and exacerbating the problems of rural isolation amongst farmers who often work alone all day. Some farmers are so concerned about the risk of criminal attack they can no longer leave the farm with their family to attend local events.”

The NFU Mutual’s figures are used by police forces to help them understand rural crime on their patch and plan rural police responses.