Victims face 'devastation' of livelihoods amid sharp rise in rural crime

A rise in rural crime has left victims feeling like ‘nobody cares’ as they count the cost of raids which put their livelihoods at risk. 

A combination of pressures is fuelling growing levels of thefts from relatively isolated premises nationally, according to the latest insights. 

A spate of raids in recent months comes with farmers and landowners already caught in the cross-hairs of spiralling operational costs and ongoing labour shortages. The cost of rural crime, which includes thefts of quad bikes, livestock and fuel, rose more than 40% in the first quarter of 2022 following two successive years of falls, according to research. 

One victim told how her family is now paying a private security firm to monitor their land after having £60,000 worth of high-tech kit stolen by a suspected organised crime gang.  

David Exwood, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), told that the rise in thefts has continued into this year, propelled by the cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine. 

‘Rural crime is a very broad picture and farmers experience crime in all sorts of ways,’ Mr Exwood said. 

‘We have seen a rise in machinery theft, partly due to the war in Ukraine and the need for machinery out there, because ultimately that’s where a lot of this equipment is going.

‘Whenever there is a war or reconstruction it increases the illicit trade in machinery, which is also what we saw with the conflicts in Syria and Kosovo. We have also seen a rise in livestock thefts because of the cost of living crisis and the trade in illegal meat.

‘There are many ways farmers can be targeted, which also includes illegal hare coursing on their land and dogs worrying livestock. People living in the countryside can feel very vulnerable at times.’ 

Rural crime rose to pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of 2022, according to research by NFU Mutual. Rising prices of fuel and food, creaking supply chains and organised crime gangs travelling more freely after the pandemic are viewed as key drivers behind the problem.

Rural theft cost the UK £40.5 million in 2021, a 9.3% decrease on the previous year, according to NFU Mutual. However the rate is now believed to be ticking sharply upwards in what the rural insurer has termed a ‘returning threat’ after the pandemic.  

More than 30 farms in North Yorkshire were hit by quad bike and machinery thefts between November and January, according to the regional police force. In response, specialist resources were deployed in the area, including air, dog, firearms and road units.

In Cornwall, the victim of a burglary in which £3,000 worth of items were taken said that thefts from outbuildings were ‘absolutely rife’.

Pete Lethbridge, who runs a stainless steel fabrications business from a farm near Bodmin, told CornwallLive in January that he had lost equipment and tools including an off-road motorbike, two chainsaws, and a generator.  

Eveey Hunter, chair of the NFU’s Next Generation Forum, told that her family has been forced to employ private security to monitor their farm in rural Hertfordshire.  

In September 2021 they were targeted by a suspected organised gang who stole GPS components worth a total of £60,000 from the cabs of a combine harvester and two tractors, ripping out wires and halting work during the crucial harvest season.  

‘The thieves must have been watching the farm for days, if not weeks,’ Eveey said. ‘On the same night, another farm nearby had GPS systems stolen from 30 vehicles, which I doubt was a coincidence.

‘We would have finished our crop harvest the next day and it put us back two-and-a-half weeks while everything was fixed, which included waiting for parts to arrive from Germany.

‘The vehicles were insured but it probably pushed our premium up.  

The gangs are causing havoc

‘For last year’s harvest we employed a security company to monitor cameras we put up, which cost about £4,000 for the season.

‘We are going to have to do that every year now just for peace of mind that we are not leaving everything out vulnerable in the field. 

‘The destruction that these thefts cause means that we just cannot take the risk. It’s a massive problem nationwide, these thefts are organised by criminal gangs with the stolen equipment going to Europe. We know it and so do the manufacturers. By the time I’ve called our local rural police team the equipment is already heading to Poland or wherever.

‘There are other aspects of rural crime such as arson, hare coursing and fly-tipping, which have a different impact in different parts of the country.  

‘The police don’t have the resources, people or the money to deal with such a huge problem. A lot of it could be stopped if there was more cross-border co-ordination, stopping the same gangs from moving around borders across the country and causing havoc.’

The story of valuable stolen equipment is a familiar one to Mr Exwood.  

‘Stolen machinery is hard to replace because at the moment the supply chain is under pressure with high demand and long lead times,’ he said. ‘It makes it hard to produce food and run your business.

‘For example, if you have a GPS guidance system on your tractor it affects the operation of the machine meaning you can’t operate it properly and it might be weeks or months before you get a replacement.

‘It’s not a case of simply ringing the insurance company, there’s a long-term impact.  You feel vulnerable, isolated and challenged. When you are out in the countryside, the police can be a very long way away.’ 

Thefts of Land Rover Defenders alone cost £2.6 million in 2021, a rise of 87% on the previous year, according to the report. Livestock theft cost £2.4 million, an increase of 3.7% on 2020.

Rural crime in numbers: 2021


COST: £1.5M

A 47% decrease from 2020 thanks to targeted support for police operations


COST: £9.1M

Matching 2020’s figures despite the wider drop in rural crime costs


COST: £2.6M

A rise of 87% on the previous year


COST: £2.4M

An increase of 3.7% on 2020

(Source: NFU Mutual/Rural Crime Report)

The headline figures represent the thin edge of a far wider problem.

‘There is frustration when you experience repeated attacks on your livestock or when you get industrial-scale fly-tipping on your farm,’ Mr Exwood said.

‘It can be very frustrating when these offences are seen as low-grade crimes and not treated as a priority.

‘Farmers are left to feel like nobody cares.  

‘It can be said of any crime that people’s livelihoods are on the line, but this is especially true in the countryside, because people are vulnerable in so many different ways.’ 

The 10 worst affected counties in 2021

County 2021 2020 %change from 2020

1 Lincolnshire £2,406,760 £2,545,570 -5.5%
2 Essex £1,651,877 £1,683,052 -1.9%
3 Kent £1,382,426 £1,445,717 -4.4%
4 Leicestershire £1,235,802 £1,244,881 -0.7%
5 Suffolk £1,178,428 £1,470,057 -19.8%
6 Gloucestershire £1,162,932 £1,162,675 0.0%
7 Lancashire £1,134,391 £1,484,103 -23.6%
8 Hampshire £1,129,631 £1,305,965 -13.5%
9 Warwickshire £1,121,075 £1,170,073 -4.2%
10 Shropshire £996,283 £1,338,843 -25.6%

(Source: NFU Mutual/Rural Crime Report)

The response from government, police and other agencies with a vested interest in the safety and security of rural areas has included establishing the National Rural Crime Unit (NRCU). Staff have been transitioning since January this year with the unit expected to be fully functional by April 1.

‘We have seen across police forces a focus on rural crime with the establishment of rural crime units and dedicated officers,’ Mr Exwood said.  

‘While this is great, there is a recognition that more could be done and we want to see much better coordination across the country because there are 43 police forces and they all have a slightly different approach.

‘We would welcome better funding for the NRCU, because at the moment it has very limited funding and we feel a real impact could be made by a national approach to some of these crimes.

‘The criminals don’t respect county borders and policing needs the same approach, to share knowledge and intelligence of what’s going on and have a real impact on some of these crimes.’

Superintendent Andrew Huddleston, who heads the NRCU, told that inroads are being made in tackling rural crime.

‘Crime in rural communities can have devastating consequences on residents and businesses alike,’ he said. ‘The newly formed NRCU will build upon the work we have already been doing with police forces to strengthen their response to rural crime, with objectives set against the strategy for rural and wildlife crime; a strategy which is supported by all chief constables and police and crime commissioners.  

‘Where criminal activity has taken place police forces will investigate and take action where there is evidence to do so, working closely with other enforcement partners. Specialist support around machinery and livestock thefts in particular is key and this is where the NRCU has already shown it can make great gains and we are working with the NFU, NFU Mutual and politicians to develop this capability for all of England and Wales.’ 

Supt Huddleston accepted that further work needs to be done across government and the private sector to tackle the issue.

He said: ‘Rural policing teams across the country are doing some outstanding work but we do need to be better joined up, share best practice more widely and understand new emerging threats such as worldwide demand for machinery and the rise in the cost of living. This is why the NRCU is being established and I call upon industry to work with us to keep our rural communities safe and make these areas hostile for criminals.’ 

The government maintains that extra officers are being recruited in England and Wales through the Police Uplift Programme and it is supporting new efforts to tackle hare coursing and vehicle thefts.

A Home Office spokesperson said: ‘Whether someone lives in the countryside or a town or city, they should have the same peace of mind when going about their daily lives, and they should get the same high-quality service from the police if they fall victim to a crime. 

‘We are committed to driving down rural crime, which is why we have welcomed a strategy from the National Police Chiefs’ Council to provide guidance for the police when tackling issues affecting rural communities and are increasing the number of police officers by 20,000 by March 2023, the biggest increase in decades.’ 

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