Farmers turn properties into fortresses to fight back against rural crime wave

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.

Farm fortress

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.

Robert Cookes says burglars can now get through chains like they are 'rotten string' (Photo: Robert Cookes)
Robert Cookes says burglars can now get through chains like they are ‘rotten string’ (Photo: Robert Cookes)

“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.

ANPR cameras

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.

Criminals are using cordless angle grinders to cut through chains and locks (Photo: NFU Mutual)
Criminals are using cordless angle grinders to cut through chains and locks (Photo: NFU Mutual)

“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.”

Case study

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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Andy Street: Making connections to change our region

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

When the Prime Minister gave his first speech at the Manchester Science and Industry Museum on July 27, he spoke of the “basic ingredients of success for the UK”.

He spoke about culture, liveability, responsibility in power and accountability – but the subject that resonated most with the experiences of the West Midlands was his belief in the power of connections.

He said: “Inspiration and innovation, cross fertilisation between people, literally and figuratively, cannot take place unless people can bump into each other, compete, collaborate, invent and innovate.”

The West Midlands provides a case study for the UK in how connectivity can transform an area by linking its communities, its geography, its businesses and its people. In the UK’s most diverse region, this commitment to connection is a key part of the new Urban Conservatism we are building here, which is winning support.

In a region spread across the seven boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton, connectedness has been vital in building a sense of unity. Most obviously, huge investment in our transport network is allowing our communities to physically meet.

But as the Prime Minister said, connectedness isn’t just about tramlines and buses, it’s about encouraging the sharing of ideas to drive growth – and it’s as old as the hills.

Successful city states – going back to the Italian Renaissance and beyond – flourish by bringing people together to drive social and economic progress through greater understanding and innovation. The lesson of history is that places that unite different cultures to distil their ideas and harness their ambition are successful, be it 18th century London or 20th century New York.

Here, that ambition means connecting an increasing number of economic hotspots. From the cluster around the NEC known as ‘UK Central’ to the massive Phoenix 10 brownfield reclamation scheme in the Black Country, the resurgent economy in the West Midlands is creating jobs that require connectivity. Investment in public transport is building an arterial network taking people – and their ideas– into these centres of opportunity.

But the real lesson of the West Midlands story is how we are learning to connect people, not places. The Mayor’s Community Weekend, for example, brought tens of thousands of people together over 165 events through a partnership between the West Midlands Combined Authority and the National Lottery Community Fund. A hundred workplaces joined in with the Mayor’s Giving Day, encouraging charity in all forms. My Faith Action Plan brings together different faiths. We are even connecting the generations through my Cricket Cup at Edgbaston on September 8, which will see grandparents and grandchildren take the field together.

In such a diverse place, these soft social initiatives solidify to bind the connections we make, simply by getting involved. The alternative to connectedness is isolation, which breeds intolerance. It’s critical to stand against intolerance of any kind, whether it’s racial, religious or the kind of schools protest against equality teaching we have seen in Birmingham.

We are also making great strides in closing divisions in our communities to improve social mobility. In 2007, 20% of our young people left school with no qualifications, a figure that has been brought down to 11% through retraining in areas like digital and construction, and growth in modern apprenticeships.

That’s being helped by a unique feature in the West Midlands – the Apprenticeship Levy Transfer Scheme, which allows us to spend the unused apprenticeship levy paid by big firms more sensibly. Closing skills gaps like this is another way that we promote connectedness across and within our communities.

Connectivity in a more literal sense can be achieved through technology. I was encouraged by the PM’s commitment in his candidacy to speed up the roll-out of Fibre Broadband across the country. This kind of quick expansion is vital if we are to ensure that no areas are left disconnected from digital opportunities through under-investment.

However, with 5G coming first to our region, we aren’t prepared to wait for connections to spark innovation. Just a few weeks ago a ground-breaking trial here hinted at what can be achieved with 5G, when we linked local ambulances to doctors in A&E in real-time. The same technological connectivity is driving our automotive sector in its ambition to become the UK capital of driverless vehicles.

Sitting as we do at the heart of England, the West Midlands is positioned to benefit from the Prime Minister’s ambition to better connect the nation and rebalance the economy. As the PM said, “We need to literally and spiritually unite Britain, and that means boosting growth and bringing our regions together.”

To me, there is no greater instrument for this ambition than HS2 – the single piece of investment that will unlock millions of pounds of transport and housing infrastructure our region desperately needs.

Sites like the new tram line from East Birmingham to Solihull are indelibly linked to HS2. We have a target to ensure local people are never more than 45 minutes from a HS2 station, and schemes such as reopening closed railway lines and the impressive Sutton Coldfield Gateway have been meticulously planned around this major investment by the Government to sew our country together. Without it we are definitely poorer.

Connections need to be international too. As Michael Heseltine pointed out in this report ‘Empowering English Cities’, which was commissioned by the West Midlands Combined Authority, the underperformance of our major cities on the world stage is a critical problem that must be solved if we are to balance our economy.

However, this does not mean adopting an adversarial position to competing city regions like Rotterdam, Lyon, Frankfurt, Milan, Chicago and Sapporo, it means ensuring that we have the global connections to take in the best ideas and turn them to our own advantage.

This crucible of cultures concept is the very purpose of the civic university, and you will not find a better example than Chamberlain’s University of Birmingham – which is why our universities must, post-Brexit, continue to welcome International students. They literally connect us to the world and the ideas developing beyond our shores.

Travel opportunities are also important in nurturing our global position. Birmingham Airport has its sights set beyond the Brexit horizon with continued growth in passenger numbers. Work is due to start on its T18 project – named because it will create a terminal that can handle 18 million passengers a year, a rise of nearly 40% on the previous record, achieved in 2017.

HS2 makes this project even more important, as the airport will only be 38 minutes away from Euston, much quicker to get to from North London than both Heathrow and Gatwick.

Finally, I consider my own role as Mayor of the West Midlands to be one of connectivity. Overseeing a region where Labour control the majority of local authorities has meant that my job has often been about providing the glue that holds us all together, encouraging teamwork. In the UK’s youngest, most diverse area, this Urban Conservative approach is paying dividends politically as we attempt to make more of our constituent authorities Conservative.

This kind of inclusive Conservative leadership is where the party must be – and we are looking to Prime Minister Johnson, as the former Mayor of Britain’s mega city, to understand this and follow it through in Government. The Prime Minister will know what a Conservative Mayor in an urban region can achieve through physically connecting people – whether it’s through social connections, transport connections or digital connections – and I hope he will be considering how we can replicate this across the country.

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