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Northern Ireland farms reeling under £2.5m costs of crime

Worried farmers are braced for new wave of rural crime

By Rachel Martin

Farms are being turned into fortresses after rural crime cost the sector a huge £2.5m last year, according to the latest statistics.

The figure is down almost 15% from £3m the year before, but with margins in the sector at their tightest in years, it's a cost many in the industry can't afford.

Worryingly, the statistics show rural theft costs fell 4% nationally in 2016, but have risen sharply by more than 20% in the first half of 2017.

The figures form part of NFU Mutual's annual Rural Crime Report, published today.

It found that quad bikes, livestock and tools top thieves' wish-lists, but despite increased security, criminals are also continuing to target Land Rover Defenders, tractors, and livestock.

In Co Antrim alone the cost of rural crime was a staggering £903,884.

The NFU report said it raises concerns that a "new wave of rural crime is hitting the countryside".

Just last week a tractor and fertiliser spinner worth around £100,000 were stolen from a farm in Co Armagh.

Owner Stanley Livingstone said the incident had caused his family a lot of stress.

"It was taken just yards from the kitchen window," he said at the time.

"It's scary to think that someone was creeping about so close to the house. Sometimes I go out to the cows or my sons go out - who knows what could have happened."

In Co Down, award-winning dairy farmer Thomas Steele said that one and a half tonnes of powdered milk in 60 bags and worth £3,000 were stolen from his farm in Kircubbin in April.

The milk had been bought to use to feed his calves.

Thomas offered a £300 reward for information and said police found fingerprints, but that the thieves were never caught. He said he had to borrow powdered milk from neighbours just to feed his calves that morning.

"We milk three times a day so there's only a very small amount of time when we're not in the yard and our house is just a stone's throw from the shed.

"When we called the Farmers' Union, they said it was the first time they had heard of powdered milk being stolen.

"It's quite heavy to lift and bulky so we think it must have been stolen to order - that quantity would take a small farmer forever to get through.

"On the neighbouring farms around us there have been countless thefts - things like quads, power tools and machinery going missing in the night. There's very little police presence in rural areas now so they know they can get in and out quickly and get away with it.

"It's made us have to think a lot more about security.

"We have gone from leaving keys in tractors to having to go the full hog now with padlocks and chains on gates and cameras and everything, just in case the next time it's something bigger."

The news comes just weeks after a campaign was launched to urge more people to report crime targeting agricultural and rural communities.

Martin Malone, NFU Mutual regional manager for Northern Ireland, said: "Although the figures for rural crime in Northern Ireland are down, countryside criminals continue to become more brazen and farmers are now having to continually increase security and adopt new ways of protecting their equipment.

"However, in some parts of the region, farmers are having to turn their farmyards into fortresses to protect themselves from repeated thieves who are targeting quads, tractors and power tools.

"They are using tracking devices on tractors, video and infra-red surveillance in their farm yards and even DNA markers to protect sheep from rustlers."

The report reveals that being 'staked out' is the biggest worry for country people, followed closely by the longer police response times in rural areas.

Mr Malone added: "The threat of becoming a victim of rural crime, and regular reports of suspicious characters watching farms, is causing high levels of anxiety amongst farmers."

Belfast Telegraph

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