Calls for tougher judicial sentences for people involved in rural crime have been reiterated by the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU), in light of the latest rural crime statistics published this morning.

It is too easy to view rural thefts as a "victimless crime that is generally covered by insurance", according to the President of the UFU, Barclay Bell.

He warned that rural crime leaves people feeling vulnerable in their homes, while Northern Ireland's border with the Republic of Ireland also provides a difficult challenge.

Bell said: "For some time we have been critical of the lenient sentences handed down by the courts, and we have been pressing for a change of approach.

“We welcome initiatives such as trailer marking, freeze branding livestock and the use of tracker devices on tractors and other machinery.

"However we remain unhappy that despite the efforts of farmers to make their property secure, and the efforts of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the sentences the courts hand out do not reflect an attitude that this is a crime that needs to be taken seriously.

In an era when all public sector budgets are under pressure, the UFU acknowledged the fact that there are limits to what the PSNI can do to protect the countryside.

We would however like to see more cooperation between the police and the authorities on both sides of the border, so that they can target criminals more effectively.

"We also believe the Department of Justice needs to amend sentencing guidelines for the courts. These are crimes that need to be taken seriously, because of the social and economic damage they create – and the fact that we know that confronted criminals are prepared to use violence,” Bell concluded.

Emerging trends

Meanwhile, the rural crime report for 2017, published by the insurance provider NFU Mutual, highlighted that the cost of rural crime in the UK decreased by 4.3% in 2016 compared to the previous year. However, it added that figures for early 2017 suggest it is rising again.

Data from the report also highlighted trends in relation to rural crime in the UK.

According to the report, which is based on claims data from more than 300 NFU Mutual – a company which claims to be the UK’s leading rural insurer - branches, being watched or ‘staked out’ is the biggest concern for people living in the countryside.

Concerns are also being raised that livestock are being stolen for slaughter and processing outside regulated abattoirs, before illegally entering the food chain.

The data also reportedly indicated that thieves are cloning the identities of large, expensive tractors to make them easier to sell and harder to detect.

On the other hand, small and older tractors are being targeted by organised gangs for export to developing countries, the report added.