Crime in the countryside

A recent research report into machinery and vehicle thefts reveals some useful insights from the perpetrators and tips on how to avoid becoming a victim

Many CLA members reading this will have firsthand experience of rural crime. Farmers and landowners across the country have long been targets for organised crime groups and opportunistic thieves, whether it be for machinery, red diesel, livestock or anything else of value.

Dr Kate Tudor, a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Northumbria, spent 12 months researching and producing the report ‘Illicit Entrepreneurialism in the Countryside: Selected Findings on the Impact, Dynamics, and Policing of Plant and Agricultural Machinery and Vehicle Thefts in the UK’. The report provides some fascinating insights, especially given that Kate was able to interview 20 perpetrators as part of the research.

The crime itself

Kate identifies within her report that agricultural machinery thefts were one of the very few areas that did not see a significant decrease in incidents during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Speaking to the CLA, she says that some areas did see spikes – for example, in Hampshire, where 21 all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) were reported stolen in 24 days. Kate also shows that, while there are opportunists, a lot of machinery and plant theft is carried out by international organised crime groups and ends up out of the UK, often within hours of being stolen.

Another concerning finding which Kate discovered during her research is that several stolen items (particularly GPS equipment and smaller items) are then sold back into the UK by these crime groups. She advises that those looking to buy these items on the second-hand market should be vigilant about where they have come from.

Another area of particular interest in the report is around criminals being caught in the act. While members of these organised crime groups indicated that they would not want to resort to violence, they would often act with a higher risk level to get away, which would put the victim and members of the public at risk of serious harm. Therefore, it is imperative that victims or any bystanders do not try to and intervene where they encounter crimes taking place.

The aftermath

For those who discover they have been the victim of a theft of machinery or equipment from their business, it can be overwhelming. There has long been the perception that police forces have not taken rural crime seriously. However, through Kate’s research and the engagement the CLA has with police forces across England and Wales, it appears that the tide is shifting in relation to this.

Kate says: “A lot of respondents were highly satisfied with the response of their rural crime teams, but both criminals and victims were able to identify areas that did not have strong rural crime teams.”

Another key factor impacting the underreporting of crimes is safety concerns on the part of the victim. It is often the case that criminals know where the victim lives, which is understandably a concern for many to consider. This goes hand in hand with elements of intimidation, which is evident in some types of rural crime.

One area of Kate’s research which showed a positive impact in terms of both police response to rural crime and issues around fear of reporting was the growing use of WhatsApp groups between local farmers/landowners and police.

The sharing of intelligence, which is often in real-time, has major benefits for all parties. We therefore strongly encourage you to engage or initiate these groups in your local areas. One concern is that many police forces themselves are unable to use WhatsApp due to security concerns over the software. However, participation from the police with these WhatsApp groups is crucial, and the CLA has seen the benefits where forces have been able to interact with local rural businesses using this medium. At a recent meeting, Gloucestershire Constabulary was discussing the increase in criminals caught in the act of committing these crimes due to engagement through their various farmer/landowner WhatsApp groups.

How to avoid becoming a victim

One of the key aspects of Kate’s research was around what people can do to minimise the chance of becoming a victim of rural crime. CCTV systems may be an obvious choice for some people, but the perpetrators were not actually concerned about this when Kate spoke to them, as they were always concealing their appearance. Perpetrators were much more concerned about Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras or CCTV on road networks, which would track their movements away from sites where the crime has taken place.

We are seeing community-led ANPR camera schemes in some areas of the country (Gloucestershire Constabulary has reported the success of this), which are a useful tool in the fight against rural crime.

Kate explained that, in terms of ‘on farm’ deterrents, perpetrators were most concerned about lighting systems, guard dogs and alarm systems, as these were the most disruptive to their activities. Alongside these measures, she also found that forensic marking of machinery and equipment was an effective tool for the recovery of stolen goods.

Posting social media content showing equipment and machinery can be an advert for some criminals, who are very much engaged on these platforms

Another matter that may seem completely innocent (and is normally done to market your rural business) is social media use. Kate discussed how posting content showing equipment and machinery can be an advert for some criminals, who are very much engaged on these platforms. Therefore, we recommend that members are careful about what they are putting on social media to ensure this activity does not show anything that would jeopardise the security of a business.

If you have any questions or concerns around rural crime and theft, please contact your local CLA advisory team.

Rural crime

Find out more about the CLA’s work on rural crime by visiting our dedicated campaign page here.