Rural crime cost Northern Ireland £3.3m in 2019 - a rise of nearly 20%, according to a major report.
The stark figure revealed in the 2020 Rural Crime Report, published today by NFU Mutual, reveals that Northern Ireland witnessed the second highest percentage rise in criminal gangs targeting UK farms last year.
Victor Chestnutt, president of the Ulster Farmers' Union said fear and anxiety was on the rise among rural communities and called for action.
"The financial loss of rural crime can threaten the livelihoods of farming families overnight not to mention have a lasting impact on their well-being," he said.
"Many farmers and rural dwellers across the country are living in constant fear, unable to gain peace of mind in their own homes and farms because of these reoccurring thefts by criminal gangs."
Between 2018 and 2019 the cost of organised gangs taking tractors, quad bikes and livestock rose by £0.5m, from £2.8m to £3.3m.
County Antrim alone appears to be a rural crime 'hotspot', accounting for a third of the £3.3m NI total at £1.1m, a rise of 42.1% on 2018.
A further breakdown by county could not be provided by the NFU.
Meanwhile, during 2019 rural theft and crimes cost the UK £54m in 2019, an increase of almost 9% on the previous year.
Across the UK, the biggest percentage increase was seen in Scotland at 44.1%, followed by 18% in Northern Ireland and the East of England (16.9%).
The lowest regional increase was in North East England, which witnessed a rise of 0.4%.
Livestock theft UK-wide also increased by 9% to £3m during 2019. The increase has been derived by organised gangs stealing large number of sheep, which end up entering the food chain illegally.
Martin Malone, NFU Mutual manager for Northern Ireland, said that while reports of rural crime here had reduced during the first half of this year, mainly due to the pandemic, indications are that it is on the rise again.
"Rural crime is like a wave as organised criminality spreads through our villages, farms and rural towns, affecting everyone in the countryside," he said.
"We continue to work hard to stem the tide and are warning rural communities and helping with prevention advice, as there are concerns for the months ahead as the economic impact of coronavirus bites."
He continued: "As well as the financial cost, there's a serious effect on the mental well-being of people living in rural and often isolated areas.
"There are fears that the impact will be felt harder this year as farmers have been working flat-out to feed the nation and many rural communities have been put under additional pressure by the challenges brought by Covid-19."
The manager explained that a survey of NFU Mutual Agents last year discovered that a quarter knew someone who had been forced to change the way they lived or farmed as a result of crime and the biggest fear in rural communities was repeat attacks.
"There's no doubt that very determined organised criminal gangs are targeting the countryside and without the Rural Crime Partnership which brings together the PSNI, the Ulster Farmers' Union, NFU Mutual and other rural organisations, we would be seeing even higher costs," he continued.
Turning to the ongoing effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on rural crime, he added: "NFU Mutual's provisional theft claims data for the first half of 2020 indicates that while rural theft fell overall during the early part of pandemic lockdown, we're now seeking signs that thieves are becoming more active again."
Mr Chestnutt continued: "Farmers and rural dwellers need to work together with the PSNI and wider local community, reporting all incidences of rural crime and sharing any information that may be useful including strange behaviour with the PSNI. Together we can stop the activities of rural thieves.
“I also encourage farmers to step up security on their farms. Make sure all farm machinery and vehicles are safely locked away, especially those of high value, and regardless of the time of day, never leave a tractor or quad sitting unattended with the keys in the ignition or close by. Record details of all your farm machinery, take photographs and consider investing in tracking systems. The simplest safety measures can make the greatest difference in combating rural crime."
NFU Mutual is a member of the NI Rural Crime Partnership, which was established to enable police and rural organisations to join forces and tackle rural crime together. It also shares claims information and expert advice with the police and rural watch schemes across the UK. For more information visit www.nfumutual.co.uk/ruralcrime.