The Changing Face of Rural Crime


The scope of rural crime is changing, but if criminals think that they can hide in the countryside, they’re mistaken.

Rural crime is costing around £50 million a year. This includes things like tractor theft (total cost £7.4m), quadbike theft (£2.6m) and livestock theft (£2.5m).

Yes. You read that right. Sheep and cattle rustling is a multi-million-pound business nowadays. There have been reports of animals being slaughtered and butchered in fields overnight. It all feels a bit Wild West.

Back when I was driving tractors (what my kids call the ‘olden days’), the key to one John Deere would open and start all the others on the farm. Yes, we had break-ins – tools and diesel were the main targets – but by and large the big kit was hard to nick.

That’s changed over the years. Criminal gangs have got organised. Rural crime is now organised crime. And traditionally city-based organised crime gangs have eyed up the supposed advantage that the seclusion of the countryside can offer.

Tractors are harder to nick nowadays, too. Not that this stops farms being targeted. Last year, UK police recovered two tractors from Lithuania that had been stolen from Scotland in 2016. And nine from Northern Cyprus. That’s organised crime – lifting them and getting them out of the country. You can’t really fence a stolen tractor down the local, after all.

But there’s a new, sinister, dynamic to rural crime. It’s the supply-chain that comes with the organised crime gangs. The awful stuff. Human trafficking, modern slavery, drug factories, county lines distribution networks, money laundering. So the scope of rural crime has evolved dramatically over the last few years.

And so has the response. Hi-tech spy gear is used by armed surveillance teams, many of whom have the kind of back-story you read about in a Tom Clancy novel. It’s necessary. And those tough folk who don’t say much are necessary, too. The Home Office estimates the illegal drug market is worth about £7 billion in the UK alone. Just like the Wild West, the thing about the outlaws is they don’t obey the law. Criminal gangs will – and do – go to extremes to protect their lucrative operations.

At this point, I should stress that us ordinary, law-abiding, members of the public shouldn’t worry. By any measure, crime is lower in the countryside – the official statistics back this up. Living in the countryside is as safe as it has ever been.

Gang violence is still an exclusively urban phenomenon. Last year, two rival networks were rolled up in one operation. Police specialists, using drones, infra-red and various other cool bits of kit, surveilled a gang whose plan was to kidnap, rob and ransom a member of a rival gang. This was, apparently, in retaliation for a previous kidnapping. Officers waited until the unfortunate gangster was dragged out of his house in his pants and then collared everyone. All on tape, too.

It’s the gangs’ logistical operations that have moved to the countryside, rather than their violence. And police are rolling these up with remarkable efficiency. Multi-million-pound operations have been disrupted in Lancashire, Leicestershire, Devon and Warwickshire in the last few months.

We’re not taking about the hippy in the village who grows his own weed, or the nice old dear who has a puff to relieve the arthritis. These are serious criminal enterprises that are being disrupted. There’s suffering, real human misery, in the supply chain of industrial-grade drug distribution. But we’re beating them. Technology and new police tactics mean that the gangs can’t hide in the countryside anymore.

Ben Everitt represents Great Brickhill and Newton Longville ward on Aylesbury Vale District Council. He works in London and Milton Keynes doing “strategy stuff” in the finance sector. Ben’s Twitter handle is @Ben_Everitt