BY RUPERT MATTHEWS
This year has been tough for small businesses. None more so than those in rural areas which struggle on with all the problems that already go with keeping a business going in areas without the sorts of benefits that businesses in towns take for granted – fast broadband, high footfall and neighbouring businesses less than a mile away.
This year Small Business Saturday fell on 5th December, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to go and visit some of the rural businesses in Leicestershire and Rutland to see how they have been getting on. The situation was slightly complicated by the restrictions of the Covid tier system, but with the use of facemasks and judicious social distancing I managed quite well.
First up was William, a sheep farmer in Rutland. Lockdown has not affected him too much, but rural crime is an ever-present problem. Much of this will – sadly – come as no surprise to rural dwellers. Farm machinery has been stolen, once in broad daylight. And it is not only the financial loss of the theft itself, of course. Insurance premiums go up and there is the inconvenience of it. When some machinery goes missing it is very often at the time of year when it is needed most for seasonal work. That means that William has had to borrow some machinery from a nearby farmer, just when he needs it most himself. A neighbour had some of his sheep slaughtered on his land one night and the carcasses taken away for sale.
Hare coursing is also on the rise in Rutland. For many townsfolk, this comes across as being an unimportant issue. They don’t realise that not only is hare coursing itself illegal, but the gangs involved are remarkably unpleasant people. They smash through gates, tear down hedges or fences and churn up paths and bridleways to gain access to the field that they have chosen. And wildlife suffers too – William has found deer crushed by the hare coursers 4-wheel drive vehicles. Anyone who objects is threatened with violence or having their barns and outbuildings set on fire.
According to William, the local police are doing their best. Indeed, he spoke very highly of the police in Rutland. But there are not enough of them out and about in the rural area where he lives. William believes that they need to maintain a higher and more visible profile in the area to act as a deterrent. And they need vehicles and equipment to suit the terrain. All too often the police kit is bought with an urban environment in mind.
Another livestock farmer that I spoke to, this time in Leicestershire, agreed. She recalled that back in the spring, just as the first national lockdown began, she was out riding her horse. She spotted a car parked up by the side of the lane that was not known to her. As she rode by she said hello to the man beside the car. The man was perfectly chatty and friendly, and from the questions he asked he clearly knew about horses.
Still, she thought that something was not quite right. So she made a note of the man’s vehicle and its numberplate. Four nearby farmers told her that the same vehicle and man had been seen by their land. Two of them were certain that he was scouting the farms to see what vehicles and machinery they had.
A month later those four farms were hit by a wave of thefts – two Landrovers, a trailer, several pieces of large machinery and a great quantity of tools were all taken in a 48 hour period. The police came out to take details of the stolen equipment, but none of it was ever recovered. Nor did the police do anything much about the suspicious man and his vehicle – not enough evidence it would seem.
More farmers feeling as if they were left on their own by the police.
My next port of call was a rural butchers who deals exclusively with animals from nearby farms. He prides himself on taking only the very best animals from farmers who he knows personally and who he trusts to maintain high standards of animal welfare and to produce the finest meat. He also has a second business that provides catering to weddings, birthdays and all manner of parties. I know that he is highly regarded for his services locally – and I can personally speak up for his roast lamb.
Obviously the catering business has been decimated by lockdown, but it is the butchery that has suffered most from crime. For some reason that he does not understand, this man’s business has become the target of a gang of militant vegans.
As a rural business, the butcher relies on the internet for most of his business. His impressive website takes orders for meat cuts and game which are then despatched around the country, or which are kept for collection. But the website has been hacked, his Facebook page inundated with malicious comments and his email account deluged with thousands of fake messages. More disturbingly his wife and children have been threatened. One threat promised to attack his children on their way to school.
Living, as he does, on a farm where the nearest house is almost a mile away and the nearest village even further, these threats are deeply disturbing. And they are also time-consuming. The hours he spends deleting fake emails or repairing damage to the website is time that is lost to his business.
“If I was running a butcher’s shop in a town,” he told me, “and these vegans were protesting outside with banners, the police would be there like a shot. But because I’m on an outlying farm and this is all happening on line the police aren’t interested.” He snorted his disgust. “When I reported that my children had been threatened, the police lady on the phone asked me if I thought it was a serious threat. How do I know that? I don’t know who these people are nor how far they are prepared to go!”
Anyone who lives in the countryside knows that rural crime poses challenges that are unlike those that occur in towns. Rural business crime is no different. The nature of rural businesses make them particularly vulnerable to criminals.
So what is to be done?
Well every area is different, but across Leicestershire and Rutland, I would like to see more police deployed to rural areas, and those police need to be both more visible and properly trained in dealing with the problems peculiar to businesses in rural areas. We also need to have in place a Rural Crime Co-Ordinator who will bring together all the agencies who can help prevent crime in rural areas, and tackle it when it does happen. I would like to see that Co-ordinator work closely with East Midlands Special Operations Unit, National Crime Square and the Border Force to tackle the way gangs dispose of the vehicles and other agricultural equipment – much of which goes out of the country within days of being stolen. The police should also provide specialist advice to business owners and staff on how to prevent crime from happening.
And I will leave the final word to William, our farmer from Rutland. “I always encourage farmers and landowners to help the police wherever possible because by working together we can actually solve much of the crime problems.”
The full interview with Rutland sheep farmer William is here:
Rupert Matthews is the Conservative Candidate to be Police and Crime Commissioner for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland. You can follow him on Twitter as @Rupert_Matthews.