Inside the great crime wave sweeping the British countryside
“The thought of there being criminals somewhere on the farm always worries me in the back of my mind,” says Luke Palmer as he walks through his family’s 4,000 acres of fertile Fenland land. “It makes you feel like someone is always there watching you.”
The 40-year-old grew up on the farm near Ely in Cambridgeshire during less anxious times. He produces an old red key that started all the tractors on the farm. There are now up and down barriers at all the main entrances to their fields, installed at a cost of nearly £100,000 in a determined effort to end the long list of thefts that have occurred recently.
“We had criminal gangs flying drones over the farm to see where the machines were. They pretend to be delivery drivers to watch us or come at night on electric scooters so as not to hear them. Recently, he and some of his workers were fixing a problem on one side of a combine harvester when a thief snuck in on the other side and tried to get away with his compressor.
This time they managed to thwart the attempt – and the disruption and delays it would have caused to the harvest. But the threat is still there, Palmer believes, without constant vigilance. “A truck recently arrived early to pick up a crop of potatoes,” he recalls. “He parked near the farm and rested. When he woke up, someone had drained the diesel from his tank. The day before we met, there were reports on a local farmers WhatsApp group of five stolen GPS systems. These aren’t car-style TomToms, but fancy devices worth over £5,000 that run every aspect of tractors and combines.
These planned and sustained raids are behind the 40% rise in rural crime in the first three months of this year reported this week by NFU Mutual, the insurers of three quarters of the farming community. It comes after two years of falling numbers during the Covid lockdown.
The figures are based on claims submitted by farmers to NFU Mutual and reveal a multi-million pound trade in everything – power equipment, quads, diesel, fertiliser, chemicals, crops – that is reasonably portable, can be snatched up quickly and has a decent resale value.
Thefts of quad bikes and all-terrain vehicles, for example, saw NFU Mutual pay out £2.2m in 2021, with the final quarter of the year accounting for half of that total as rural crime surges started in earnest. The insurer also warns of an increase in livestock theft – from turkeys to cattle. “There are a lot of hungry mouths right now and people struggling with the skyrocketing cost of living,” says Palmer.