Northern Ireland farmers' livelihoods at risk as cost of rural crime hits £2.6m: report
Rural crime in Northern Ireland is costing £2.6 million a year, a report warns today.
Farms are being targeted - in some cases twice in a matter of days - by thieves using increasingly sophisticated methods.
It has forced many farmers to change their way of life, with some resorting to "medieval" methods to stop criminals.
The stark warning comes as figures show the cost of rural crime is on the rise. The £2.6m bill in 2017 was up 5.3% on the previous year, analysis by insurance firm NFU Mutual found.
Its Rural Crime Report reveals quad bikes and ATVs (all-terrain vehicles), livestock and tractors are the biggest targets for thieves.
The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) has warned that crime is putting some farmers' livelihoods at risk. It has called for the courts to impose tougher sentences for rural crime.
According to the latest Agricultural Census in Northern Ireland, there are around 25,000 farms and 30,300 farmers.
The number of farms and workers has risen over the last 15 years, but so too has the cost of crime. In 2017, it cost the industry here £2.6m - more than in Wales (£1.9m) and Scotland (£1.5m). The highest costs were in England, including the Midlands (£8.8m) and South East (£7.6m), NFU Mutual found.
UFU official James O'Brien said thieves are becoming increasingly daring.
"Rural crime has a lasting impact on farming families, who can literally find their livelihoods threatened overnight," he said. "Criminals are sophisticated in the homes and businesses they target. They are selective about what they take and will not think twice about targeting the same farm again, sometimes within days. The net result is that across all rural areas, people now feel isolated and vulnerable in their own homes."
Mr O'Brien said there was an onus on the courts to take firmer action. "We remain deeply unhappy that despite the efforts farmers take to protect their property and the PSNI targeting of rural criminals, the sentences courts impose do not reflect the scale of this threat to rural life and livelihoods," he added.
Today's report reveals that limited police resources and repeat attacks are the biggest fears for people in rural communities.
The report also describes how some farmers are combining "medieval methods" with high-tech security to stop crime.
Some are using earth banks, fences and high-security single access points to "fortify" their farms.
Martin Malone from NFU Mutual said: "There is widespread concern in Northern Ireland that a new breed of brazen criminals are targeting the countryside and they are overcoming electronic security measures to steal expensive equipment and vehicles."
He added: "Adapting centuries-old security with high-tech solutions is already proving successful in keeping at bay thieves who don't fear being caught on camera and have the skills to overcome electronic security systems."
According to Mr Malone, farmers are also using tracking devices and immobilisers on vehicles, CCTV video, dashcams, motion sensors, infra-red surveillance and SmartWater marking in their farmyards.
DNA markers have even been used to protect sheep from rustlers, he explained.
The PSNI said that while the cost of rural crime is rising, there was a fall in the number of farm crimes in 2017. Last year 497 crimes were recorded against the farming community - down 63 on 2016.
The number of burglary, robbery and theft offences relating to agricultural activity has shown an overall downwards trend since 2010/11.
PSNI Superintendent Brian Kee said police remain committed to reducing incidents of crime in rural areas.
"In response to this concern, we have been working with our colleagues in the Rural Crime Partnership (RCP), and in May of this year, a subsidised support scheme, especially for people living in rural areas, was launched," he commented.
"The scheme aims to help tackle the growing number of quad and trailer thefts by encouraging owners to fit an electronic tracking device to proactively deter theft and assist police with recovery should an item be stolen.
"To help combat the trend, RCP subsidises the cost of having a tracking device supplied and fitted to smaller items of agricultural equipment."
‘Thieves took two trailers ... and tried to steal my tractor’
Gary Kerr, a farmer in Lisburn, had two trailers stolen — a box trailer and a flatbed trailer — using his own 4x4 pickup truck.
The thieves also attempted to load his tractor on to the flatbed and take it away.
The flatbed was in daily use and both trailers had been moved away from the building to stop them from being damaged during high winds and stormy weather in November.
“The trailers weren’t in their usual place so it would be hard to say whether it was an opportunistic theft,” Mr Kerr said.
“There did seem to be a degree of planning.
“A neighbour had his car stolen around the same time and that was recovered 40 miles away a few months later, but there was never any sign of the trailers.”
Mr Kerr has since replaced some of the stolen items.
He added: “There isn’t a farm watch scheme in place, but we do hear about suspicious activity going on from time to time.
“The initial response from the police and NFU Mutual was good, but we decided to only replace one of the trailers in the end.”