Farmers and residents of rural communities are becoming prey to both opportunistic thieves and organised criminal gangs as year-on-year statistics show an increase in incidents of rural crime.
At the launch of a new campaign from the Rural Crime Partnership, which is aimed at encouraging farmers to come forward with information of crimes and suspicious activity in their areas, it was revealed that rural crime had increased between 2015 and 2016.
In 2015, police received 553 reports of rural crime while that figure had increased by seven to 560 for 2016.
Police are appealing to rural communities, and farmers in particular, to be their ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground as they seek to tackle rural crime across the province.
The need for better information was put in stark contrast as just a matter of hours before the launch of the new campaign the PSNI issued an appeal for information after more than a dozen Friesian cattle had been taken from a farmyard in County Londonderry.
The fact that the theft was believed to have happened in the middle of March - nearly a month ago - gives an idea of the task faced by the PSNI, who were only made aware of the crime this week.
Speaking at Markethill Livestock Mart on Tuesday morning, PSNI officers confirmed that while many crimes were opportunistic, there was an element of organised crime at work.
Superintendent Brian Kee, who is the service lead for Rural and Wildlife Crime, said: “The vast majority of rural crime is committed by opportunistic criminals. These are people driving around looking for opportunities.
“If keys are left in tractors or other vehicles and sheds are left open or unlocked then they see this as an easy opportunity.
“There is also an element of organised criminality. It takes a degree of organisation to steal livestock and expensive tractors. However, the vast majority is opportunistic and our appeal is that if you see suspicious activity then report to the PSNI or to Crimestoppers.”
Inspector Leslie Badger confirmed what many in rural communities have long suspected - that many of the people committing these crimes are from rural areas themselves.
“In relation to organised crime gangs, these are guys who live in rural communities and they know livestock and tractors. They are not coming out of towns to commit these crimes, they know how to work with livestock and how to handle the tractors and machinery they are taking,” he said.
While accepting that there was still much work to be done, Supt. Kee explained that over a longer period of time rural crime statistics were showing an overall decline.
“The reassurance I would give the rural community is that rural crime is reducing, that it is on a downward trend if you look at it long-term,” said Supt. Kee.
“In 2010/11 there were 930 victims of rural crime and last year there were 560. That is still 560 too many, but it is going in the right direction and I would be keen to get that message out there.”