Steps to take to weed out the garden thieves

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It’s hard to put a value on a garden. Often the result of years of handiwork, the replacement value for a mature garden is sadly and worryingly grossly under-estimated by most insurance companies.

Gardening is the nation’s favourite pastime as interest in next week’s Chelsea Flower Show will indicate. Even in difficult economic times, spending on garden improvements including landscaping is expected to rise 10 per cent this year, according to the annual HSBC Gardens Survey.

In Yorkshire and Humberside, having a garden is regarded at ‘very important’ by 60 per cent of the survey respondents and ‘quite important’ by 23 per cent. The region’s gardeners expect to spend 90 days tending their area.

In research by Populus for Saga, 44 per cent of over 50-year-olds cite the garden as one of a home’s most important features. Yet people in Yorkshire are over four times as likely to have something stolen from their garden (13 per cent) as those in the West Midlands (three per cent).

Garden theft claims doubled in the first three months this year by comparison with the same period in 2011, according to NFU Mutual. They say power tools, bicycles and sculptures are the three most commonly stolen articles. Their average item claimed is now £1,317.

Most of a garden’s value, omitting a greenhouse and shed, lies in the shrubs and trees and equipment like mowing machines. Both gardeners and insurers frequently do not realise how far replacement prices have outgrown original costs.

Insurance is meant to replace like with like. Whilst a young tree may cost only £50, a mature version may cost £2,000 and possibly a great deal more. A bush like Corylus avellana today costs around £40 but a 30-year cork tree, quercus suber (6m tall), is £18,000 from Barcham with another specialist, Majestic Trees, quoting £20,790 for a Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica) and £23,065 for a 12m tall Cedrus atlantica.

It is up to the insured to take a detailed inventory with serial numbers where appropriate and to keep values up to date.

For garden contents outside the property, insurers think in terms of anything that can be moved. Do not forget:

Mowing equipment and tools

Garden furniture and patio heaters

Barbecues and children’s toys

Ornaments and statues

Bicycles, golf clubs and gym equipment.

Antique or vintage items are popularly displayed in gardens. They include staddle stones, planters, troughs and sundials, all of which are popularly stolen and offered through car boot sales or internet auctions.

The most unusual items NFU Mutual have paid out for are a beehive, vintage postbox, antique anvil and two silver pheasants.

When refurbishing a property, guard against thieves who may seize paving stones, copper piping and other building materials temporarily stored outside.

Keep access as restricted as possible by locking and bolting outbuildings and garden doors. Ensure all gates and fences are in a good state of repair.

Install a security light as a deterrent and consider having sensors fitted for sculpture and sundials.

Many insurers distinguish between items left in the open and in locked outbuildings. Therefore, even in the rain, it’s important to put tools and a barbecue set away. Bicycles left in the garden are uninsured by Aviva unless extra cover is taken out for around £9 a year per family.

Claims steadily rise with more daylight. Aviva reports July and August claims almost 40 per cent up on January for garden theft. It advises to shut away ladders and wheelie bins which help thieves gain access.

Loss or damage can also occur through storm or flood. Santander offers up to £250 under its ‘Choices’ policy but unlimited for items in the garden under the ‘Peace of Mind Plus’ policy. For theft, it insures to £250 and £1,000 respectively.

Some budget insurers are unrealistic in their cover. Churchill (part of The Royal Bank of Scotland), for instance, sets a £250 ceiling but M&S Money, underwritten by Axa, is unlimited under its Premier policy. John Lewis, using Axa, offers up to £5,000 with a choice of £100-£500 excess but the leading mutual LV= (formerly Liverpool Victoria) is less generous with £1,000 garden cover and up to £250 for plants, shrubs and trees.

Banks vary considerably in their protection. HSBC only covers to £500 for garden contents but up to £2,000 for items in outbuildings and has no single article limit.

Apart from overall limits, check if a single article limit applies. “If a policy does not state a limit, it may be worth contacting your insurer to notify them of any costly items to ensure you are covered should you need to make a claim,” advises Peter Harrison, of internet site MoneySupermarket.

A few insurers have additional garden protection available. Saga, using a panel of 12 insurance companies, can extend cover for replacing shrubs, trees and hedges from £1,500 by a further £2,000 for contents in the open. It will also contribute up to £2,500 for professional garden-design fees and expenses incurred to return a garden to its former condition if damaged.

NFU Mutual extended its cover last September to cover damage caused to gardens by emergency services as a result of attending the home because of an incident insured under the policy. Garden contents is covered up to £2,500 and £10,000 respectively under their two policies with each item (plant, shrub or tree) protected up to £250 (up to £2,000) and £500 (up to £5,000).

As the UK’s leading rural insurer, it is well aware of the risks and rewards associated with living in the countryside. It receives many claims annually for garden damage by cows, sheep and other livestock, not belonging to the insured, which trample and even eat plants, damage furniture and even fall into swimming pools.

Among the largest recent theft claims, NFU Mutual report £7,000 for an antique sundial, £5,210 for a ride-on mower, £2,500 for a quad bicycle, £2,350 for a garden sculpture and £2,130 for golf equipment. However, clients have also lost heating oil (£2,115), clay pigeon traps (£1,775) and items for a caravan in the garden (£2,199).