By David Dennis

What is the connection between a quad bike and a farm dog? Both are items that have been stolen in the Sussex countryside in the last twelve months – part of an aggregate haul of around £3 million pounds-worth of rural theft across the county. 

Criminals, who understand what the black market value is for these goods both at home and overseas, continue to steal a cornucopia week in, week out: chainsaws, trailers, cement mixers, blowers, diggers, gates, excavators, hand mowers, saddles, bridles, climbing equipment, trials bikes, caravans, turkeys, chickens, anchors, church windows, ewes and balers. If any of these items are insured, then premiums go up. If they are not insured, then their loss is another headache for farmers and country-dwellers. It increases mental pressure and can lead to heart-affecting shock and even mental illness. It can develop into despair if vital equipment is stolen just when harvest time comes round. If the item stolen was borrowed or leased from another farmer, this wrecks productivity for two businesses at once.

Police made a desperate appeal for help and information in the Sussex Countrywatch newsletter when £131,000 worth of farm equipment was stolen over a few cold weeks last winter. The Covid-19 lockdown seemed to occasion increasing incidents of crime in the countryside, only for easing of restrictions to bring worse.  In Combe Valley, irresponsible walkers have let loose dogs interfere with the lambing process; crops have been trampled, swan cygnets hazarded, fields set alight, sniffer drugs inhaled, and protected wildlife destroyed. Police warning notices were destroyed within 24 hours of posting. In the week ending 8th July, equipment and livestock worth over £140,000 were stolen. Where were the police? 

Arresting Developments

They are coming. Many new police officers have joined Sussex Police. Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne has backed newly appointed Chief Constable Jo Shiner in creating a new Rural Crime Team (RCT) of investigative experts in the specialist areas of agriculture, environment, heritage, and wildlife crime. This team, led by Chief Inspector Steve Biglands and Inspector Amy Cutting, operates from Midhurst and Heathfield. Its policy remit is to make the police response to rural crime much more effective.  They are committed, says Insp Cutting, to disrupting criminal activity, pursuing rural criminals and engaging with and supporting the county’s rural communities.

The RCT will consist of an Inspector, two Sergeants, 8 PCs and 6 PCSOs. They will have specialist training, enabling them to recognise the specific types of crime which affect rural areas and the unique vulnerabilities of those who live and work in them. Established channels for crime reporting and intelligence reporting, via ‘Single online Home’ or the 101-telephone line, will be maintained and built upon to make the response to this kind of crime more effective. The team will be utilising social media to give presence where they cannot always be visible, and to have an interactive fast-time communication with the community too. 

The new team is already active in the Hastings area, working closely with partners and voluntary organisations to problem-solve specific local issues. All the members of the rural team will work closely with each other across geographic boundaries, exchanging tactical advice and support between forces including Prevention colleagues, Investigations, and other police departments.

The RCT’s operation is ring-fenced – for rural crime only. As a matter of routine, the team will not deal with crimes which are not related to agriculture, heritage, wildlife or the environment. They cannot be called away to other duties unless there is a national emergency. So they can concentrate on penetrating criminal networks who steal and sell on valuable rural assets such as quad bikes, tractors and sheep dogs.

You Can Help

In this countryside battle to reduce crime, there are two key actions that you can take to help the police help you – securing and marking your property, and sharing information with them. Do not hesitate to ring 999 if a crime is happening now, or ring 101 to report suspicions. Help other farmers and country-dwellers to stay safe, preserve livestock, equipment, and the beautiful Sussex country environment. Do your bit, change the balance, and reap the rewards of peace of mind and ongoing rural security.

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