The Countryside Alliance has said “serious organised criminals” including those linked to the international drug trade are increasingly preying on rural communities.

A report from Durham University, which was commissioned by the National Rural Crime Network (NRCN) in conjunction with rural organisations, claims many crimes are committed by “prolific rural offenders” rather than opportunistic individuals.

These offenders, some of which are involved in the international drug trade, are intentionally victimising rural communities in multiple ways, including through violence and intimidation, the Countryside Alliance said.

Despite the growing threat of crime facing rural people, the Countryside Alliance said police forces across the UK are treating it as a small-scale issue, leaving people in the countryside living in fear.

Data from the report was carried out by senior criminologist Dr Kate Tudor, who found that many rural criminals are also involved in the drug trade, often on a large, and global scale.

“Essentially, they are entrepreneurs working in the field of illicit business. They are already well grounded in crimes such as drug dealing, but they’re always looking for new and emerging business opportunities,” Tudor said.

Crime gangs

The report reveals that 22 organised crime gangs are actively involved in rural crime across the UK.

“Worryingly, however, only a small number of them are mapped in formal police procedures, which not only means the full extent of organised crime activity in rural areas is unknown, but crimes are less likely to be a priority for police intervention,” the Countryside Alliance said.

“The gangs also intentionally cross the borders of police force boundaries to exploit the weaknesses in policing methods.”

The report found that the costs associated with the theft of agricultural machinery and vehicles were £11.7 million, an increase of 29% from the previous year.

The report reinforces the responses of respondents to the Countryside Alliance’s rural crime survey, which found that 97% felt that crime was a significant problem in their community.

43% of those surveyed reported that they had been the victim of crime in the last 12 months.

Despite this, rural communities claim they feel unsupported due to what the report describes as a “collapse in police-community relationships”, which has “significant consequences for feelings of safety in rural areas”.

Rural crime

Chair of the NRCN, Tim Passmore, said: “People in rural areas are paying higher and higher taxes but often feel that policing in their communities is not a priority. 

“This new research provides clear evidence that criminal gangs from the UK and abroad are using our countryside to commit crimes that fuel the drugs trade and other serious criminal activity.

“It is now time to acknowledge that if we want to stop the organised crime gangs we have to better protect our farms, businesses and rural communities.”

Countryside Alliance director of policy and campaigns, Sarah Lee, said: “The report’s findings make clear that current understandings of – and responses to – rural crime fall dangerously short of grappling with the severity and complexity of the UK’s rural crime problem.

“We will continue to support rural communities in combatting rural crime and voicing their concerns to police forces around the country. “ 

Country Land and Business Association (CLA) president, Victoria Vyvyan, said serious and organised crime has a “heavy burden on already-isolated rural communities” up and down the country.

“Well-established criminal gangs are dumping huge quantities of waste; coursing and poaching; and plundering the countryside, stealing machinery and often moving it abroad – this is not small-scale or opportunistic crime,” she said.

“Building up a comprehensive picture of the severity of the problems is often difficult, which in turn means tackling rural crime goes under-resourced, gifting criminals with an open goal to operate.”

NFU vice president Rachel Hallos said: “Highly organised gangs of criminals have continually plagued the British countryside in recent years, stealing livestock, valuable farm machinery and expensive GPS equipment.

“Farms often double as family homes and small businesses and these crimes leave many rural communities feeling vulnerable and intimidated.

“Not only do they disrupt farmers’ efforts to produce food and care for the environment, but they also pose significant emotional and financial burdens on farming families.

“The importance of collaboration between farmers, policymakers and police forces to effectively tackle rural crime also cannot be understated and the creation of a national rural crime strategy and Advisory Group would be a crucial step to help better protect UK farming businesses.”