Visitors entering the quiet village of Barston in the West Midlands might be a little surprised to see the signs by the roadside informing them that their car licence plates are being recorded.
There is now a network of eight Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras dotted throughout the small community, recording the activities of every passing vehicle.
The devices have not been installed by police to catch speeding motorists, but by local residents who are using them to fight back against the wave of rural crime currently sweeping the UK.
According to a report published by rural insurer NFU Mutual earlier this month, the cost of crime in the countryside hit £50m last year, an increase of 12 per cent and the highest figure for seven years.
It said the trend was being driven mainly by high value thefts of tractors, quad bikes and other farm vehicles, with gangs of organised criminals surveying rural properties and stealing items to order.
Sometimes working in daylight, increasingly brazen thieves are able to slice through chains and locks with ease, often spending hours on farms carrying out their activities undisturbed.
One of the rural crime victims is 71-year-old Robert Cookes, who bought his farm near Barston in 1986, almost four decades after his father first took over its running as a tenant in 1947.
Previously a dairy farmer, he and his wife now grow crops for another local farmer who is expanding his milking herds and also use their land to run a self-storage business.
In March 2017, burglars spent eight hours at their property and made off with around £35,000 worth of items including a ride-on lawnmower, a Land Rover, a trailer and other smaller farm machinery.
Mr Cookes later retrieved some of the items after putting an appeal on Facebook, but nobody was ever arrested for the crime. Fearing another theft, he decided to turn his farm into a fortress.
“Locks today on a door – you might as well put a bit of rotten string on it,” he says.
“There’s big bolt cutters you can get that are nearly three foot long, and if they don’t do it, there are cordless angle-grinders that will go through anything. It takes seconds and they’re in.”
His farm now has an electric gate with a remotely-operated pin code entry system, while his shed doors have been reinforced with metal beams. All around the farm there are electric trip wires which, when triggered, sound an alarm that can be heard for a quarter of a mile.
He also upgraded his CCTV to cover every part of the property. “We’ve now got monitors in all of the bedrooms, the lounge and the kitchen, so if the dogs bark or we hear a noise we can see round the buildings – even when I’m lying in bed,” he says.
But he did not stop there. With the permission of the local parish council, Mr Cookes also personally paid for the first four ANPR cameras to be installed in Barston village.
The devices have proved so successful – they have already helped police secure several convictions – that there are now plans to install even more, covering every road in the area.
Mr Cookes is not the only farmer to take security matters into his own hands. According to NFU Mutual rural affairs specialist Tim Price, others are inventing their own ways of beating the thieves.
He gives the example of one Welsh farmer who was so fed up with having his quad bikes stolen that he created a drive-on locking ramp so the vehicles could be stored securely and quickly.
The Quad Vice system pins the back wheels of the vehicle and removes the need to chain it up, which is time consuming and a major annoyance for farmers going about their daily tasks.
Another invention is TecTracer, a livestock marking system designed to deter sheep rustlers by allowing farmers to easily identify a stolen animal through the dye on its fleece.
Unlike traditional dyes and tags which can be easily removed, the fluid contains tiny coded microdots that allow authorities to instantly identify the farm where the animal originated.
Drones to catch thieves
Some farmers are also trying to turn the tables on the thieves by investing in drones, allowing them to patrol their land from the farmhouse, recording any trespassers and sending videos to police.
Others worried about their expensive tractors going missing have installed tracking devices which send them an instant alert if the vehicle ventures outside the boundary of the farm.
While technology has proved useful, some have taken a more medieval approach – by simply digging ditches around their fields to prevent criminals using 4×4 vehicles to access the property.
Mr Price says the nature of rural crime started to change dramatically about 20 years ago, when the UK’s improving motorway network allowed thieves to move stolen goods much more easily.
Changing demographics have also led to the decline of the traditional close-knit rural community, with larger farms often owned by someone unknown to local residents.
“Those circumstances have created opportunities for criminals to get into the countryside with a much lower risk of being spotted, challenged and identified,” he adds.
“The situation we have now sees organised criminals target the countryside and spend time looking for opportunities, looking for things that can be stolen to order.”
He says he knows several farming families who believe they are under constant surveillance by criminals and are so worried about leaving their properties they no longer all go out together.
Such examples might be extreme, but there are concerns that the conversion of farms into fortresses is not only taking its toll on farmers, but is also altering the fabric of agricultural communities.
Mr Cookes, whose family have been farming the same land for more than 70 years, says he feels “awful” about the extreme measures he has had to take to secure his property.
“I can remember when you didn’t even have to lock a shed with your tools in it, right by the side of the road,” he says. “It didn’t even have a door on it when my father was here. It’s so sad.”
Malcolm Rayfield and his family own a farm near Northallerton in North Yorkshire. In November last year, thieves broke in and stole a quad bike, a mini quad bike and trailer worth £4,000 as well as £1,000 of fireworks they were storing for a community event set to happen the next day.
“We came out in the morning to find the garage and out houses broken into, with bolts cut and chains broken,” he said. “The really worrying thing is how long they must have been on the premises.
“The quad was chained and secured with a key pad which meant it couldn’t be freed from the platform. Rather than give up, the thieves actually took the machine apart so they could take it away.
“It’s horrifying to think they were so confident and relaxed on our property that they felt comfortable taking the time to dismantle it.”
Mr Rayfield’s daughter-in-law Kate added: “The quad had been a present for my husband’s 40th birthday, which I had steadily saved for over three years. It held a lot of sentimental value for us that can’t be replaced, making the incident even more upsetting.
“My children have been concerned about security on the farm ever since. It’s hard to reassure them but we’ve massively upped our security and done everything possible to make sure they feel safe.”
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