The cost of rural crime in Northern Ireland rose by 50.7% last year to £2.5 million, according to the latest rural crime report from rural insurer NFU Mutual.

President of the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU), William Irvine, said the results of the NFU Mutual rural crime report are disappointing, but not surprising.

“While it does not come as a surprise, it is very disappointing to learn that the cost of rural crime has increased in Northern Ireland,” he said.

The report, published today (Tuesday, August 1), revealed that the cost of rural crime across the UK rose by 22% to £49.5 million in 2022.

The cost of rural thefts rose for quads and ATVs (+34%), agricultural vehicles (+29%), GPS systems (+15%) and livestock (+8.7%) across the UK.

“What is particularly concerning is the stark increase of 51% in the cost of crime in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK which has seen a 22% increase,” Irvine said.

“At the root of the crimes that did occur are farming families who have suffered financially and emotionally because of a criminal intrusion on their farm.”

Irvine said the cost-of-living crisis and delay in replacing equipment is “making it even harder for farm families to recover” from theft incidents.

“Criminals are active in our community and we as farmers need to be vigilant and take the security of our businesses and homes seriously to deter criminals,” he said.

“I urge farmers to record details of all farm machinery, take photographs and consider investing in tracking systems. Rural crime initiatives such as trailer marking and the freeze branding of livestock are also there for farmers to avail of.” 

The evolution of rural crime

NFU Mutual’s manager for Northern Ireland, Martin Malone, said rural crime in Northern Ireland, and further afield, has been revolutionised with technological advancements and “highly organised gangs” making it harder to fight against it.

“Rural theft is changing. It is not only opportunist thieves travelling a few miles, we are now seeing internationally organised criminal activity,” he said.

“These gangs target high-value farm machinery and GPS kits because they can be sold all over the world. Many items are stolen ‘to order’ by thieves using online technology to identify where farm machinery is stored and scope out the best way to steal it.

“They will also spend hours watching the movement of farming families to work out the best time to attack.”

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Malone said that gangs are continuously causing disruption to farming and widespread concern to people who live and work in the countryside.

“Loss of vital machinery and GPS equipment causes huge disruption to farmers who are already stretched to the limit and replacing kit in the current economic situation can take months, adding additional stress.  

“Those targeted by criminals may often second guess themselves in the aftermath of an incident as well as live in fear of repeat attacks on what is not only their workplace, but also their family home.  

“That’s why we are working with farmers to help protect their livelihoods, sharing our advice and expertise as the main insurer of farmers and providing support to tackle rural crime.” 

The rise in the cost of rural crime reported in NFU Mutual’s rural crime report comes against a background of soaring values and low supply of farm machinery worldwide, according to the rural insurer.

Crime prevention

Chief inspector Atkinson of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said organised rural crime can have “devastating consequences” on farming businesses, rural communities and individuals.

“We know rural crime isn’t always just financial, but in most cases, items stolen are of considerable value and are often an essential piece of farming equipment,” he said.

Atkinson said it was disappointing to see a “significant increase” in rural crime in Northern Ireland in NFU Mutual’s latest figures.

“We want to work with local farmers to prevent their equipment from being stolen and want to remind them to keep all farming equipment out of sight and stored in a secure shed, applying approved locks and chains where possible, to ensure they are secure,” he said.

“Across the province, we regularly host trailer marking and information events in rural districts at local marts and through partnering with rural groups.

“Trailer marking involves painting or engraving a unique ID mark on trailers in an easily visible area using stencils.”

Atkinson said the PSNI is also urging farmers to consider fitting a tracked device to their farming vehicles and to mark all of their tools.

“We would urge the public that if you notice something which does not look right, or become aware of machinery or equipment being moved at odd times, to phone police on the 101 number as soon as possible and speak to your neighbourhood team,” he said.

“Where criminal activity has taken place, police will investigate all reports made to us and take appropriate action where there is evidence to do so, working closely with other enforcement partners.”