Many farmers have become almost “prisoners” on their own land, in the wake of a huge increase in rural crime across North Yorkshire, it has been claimed.
Organised criminals who prey on agricultural communities were said to have left many afraid to leave their property, even to go to market or attend a county show.
The epidemic is so great as to have placed rural life itself under threat, according to the insurer NFU Mutual, in its annual crime report.
“Rural crime is adding to the pressures which are resulting in growing feelings of isolation and depression,” said the organisation’s rural affairs specialist, Tim Price.
“One farmer recently told me that his family cannot leave the farm together any more to attend their local show because thieves will seize the opportunity to raid the farm,” he said. “In these circumstances, it’s all too easy to fall into a spiral of depression.”
The report found North Yorkshire to be the fourth worst-affected county for rural crime, with a total cost of nearly £1.8m last year – an increase of 86 per cent on 2017.
Across Yorkshire as a whole, rural crime was estimated to have cost nearly £4m.
But the larger, undocumented cost lay in the stress and potential lost livelihood caused to victims, two rural organisations said.
“It is a sad indictment on the state of policing in the countryside when farmers have almost become prisoners on their own farms,” said Libby Bateman, north rural adviser to the Country Land and Business Association.
“As it is, our police forces are stretched on resources. It’s unfortunate as it leaves rural areas as a vulnerable target for criminals.”
The CLA published its own report on rural crime last month, warning that police forces needed more resources if they were to “meet the expectations of those who live and work in the countryside”.
Ms Bateman said: “We would like to see more forces being given the tools to combat rural crime effectively. But much more needs to be done to ensure rural crime is taken seriously.”
She said police call handlers should be trained to “recognise the isolated vulnerability of rural residents so resources can be dispatched efficiently and appropriately”.
Sally Steadman, a Yorkshire volunteer with the Farming Community Network, said the hidden cost of crime was to the families directly affected.
“Rural crime can be massively devastating,” she said. “It’s not just a matter of losing something, having it taken away from you or even having something dumped on your property – it’s the emotional aspects that can have the greatest effect.”
She added: “The worst thing is that you are made to feel unsafe in your own space.
“And often, what you find is that the thieves will come once and take what they came for, then see what else you’ve got and come back again.”
Ms Steadman, herself a past victim of rural crime, said the report would surprise few in the countryside.
“I think most people will know, someone it’s happened to, even if it hasn’t happened to them,” she told The Yorkshire Post.
NFU Mutual identified quad bike theft as a rising trend among urban criminals who targeted farms, and Ms Steadman added that old Land Rovers, which have become hard to find legally, were also now considered desirable.
“Crime of any kind is painful – but when it involves items or animals that you rely on for your livelihood, it’s worse still,” she said.
“A lot of victims are small farmers who aren’t in a position to just go out and replace what they’ve lost.”
Julia Mulligan, North Yorkshire’s crime commissioner, acknowledges in the report that rural areas were often “left behind”.
She said: “Rural communities should not have to put up with sub-standard services just because of where they live. It is incumbent on policing, partners and on government and us all to listen, and to act.”
Besides livestock thefts, dog attacks and fly tipping – which it says has become an epidemic of “bogus waste companies dumping lorry-loads of rubbish in farmers’ fields” – the report identifies cyber crime as a further rising trend afflicting farmers as they diversify into new areas that rely on IT systems.
The most common attacks range from sending false invoices and using ‘phishing’ techniques to obtain sensitive financial data, to infecting computers with malicious software or hacking into farm cameras and equipment, the authors say.
Det Constable Chris Piggott, of the National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service, added: “Tractor navigation systems are also in high demand. High value and easily concealable, they’re often stolen to order to be sold on all over the world.”