Dog Thieves Stalk Our Countryside

BY RUPERT MATTHEWS

With a dog of my own, the endearing Mr Fluffles shown in the photo, I wholly appreciate how heart-wrenching the theft of your animal can be. Pets after all are members of the family.

In the last few months of lockdown, there has been an alarming rise in pet theft here in rural areas of Leicestershire and Rutland – but the same is true across our country. All it takes is a quick glance at Leicestershire’s recent media headlines to see that this is not a problem going away anytime soon.

On the 26th of February, Leicestershire Live ran an article advising people to remove cable ties from lamp posts in their area over fears that they were signals to help dognappers. Just over a week prior, Leicestershire Live ran another article stating that in 2020 the number of dog thefts had risen from 172 in 2019 to 465 in 2020 according to the charity DogLost.

Then two days ago the Harborough Police confirmed that the front gate of a property where a dog was stolen had been daubed with a strange symbol in UV paint – visible only under an ultra-violet light.

With many families having sought a canine friend for company in lockdown, the demand for dogs has gone up. So have the prices dogs fetch. Criminal gangs, often travelling from urban areas such as Birmingham and London, have seen an opportunity. It seems that our rural villages and isolated houses are favoured targets. For criminals, pet theft is low risk but high reward.

With the price of pooch’s increasing up to almost 400%, ruthless criminals have concluded that are dogs are theirs for the taking.

For too long, Leicestershire and Rutland’s Labour PCC leadership has neglected rural issues. They have neglected the welfare of our hamlets and villages in which we now see a huge rise in pet thefts. Even as I write this, I fail to find the incumbent PCC or his wannabe successor mentioning the importance of addressing these issues. For how much longer can we continue with Labour’s blinkered city-centric approach to policing that seems to wholly discount the emotional impact of rural crime?

For any family, the thought of losing their much loved pet is often unbearable. Any pet owner can undoubtedly tell you of the comfort, support and enjoyment that having an animal in the house can bring.

But for many who live across the countryside, our dogs play an altogether different role. They aid our farmers in the day to day running of the farm and provide essential companionship when out in the fields. Losing a working dog has deeper implications than the purely emotional.

These are not the only dogs who have important roles outside our domestic realms. I was shocked and disgusted to have read a recent article published by the BBC in which a Cancer Support dog had been stolen from Billesdon in Leicestershire. The dog, a black Labrador named Purdey, was helping her owner recover from Cancer by giving her “purpose” and “something to focus on” after her treatment. Purdey’s owner told the BBC that ‘she hurt every day since’. The criminals who commit these appalling acts clearly don’t of the pain and distress they cause. It is our moral responsibility to clamp down on these criminals with every available resource we have.

Equally upsetting as the statistics of theft themselves are the statistics showing the number of convictions for such crimes. Only one in five pets that are stolen are ever reunited with their owner and only 1% of thefts lead to charges.

The law suggests that a maximum of seven years can be awarded for pet theft under the Theft Act of 1968 however if a prison sentence is handed down, it is usually for less than six months.

This is not good enough.

We need to make Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland safe for pets.

Police forces across Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland have been beginning to step up their surveillance and acknowledgement of such crimes for which I commend them. However more needs to be done. We cannot let this spate of crime continue.

Neighbourhood watch groups and village social media chats are often thriving with communities talking to each other and informing each other about suspicious activity. In my mind, these groups in our community need to be mobilised more by our police. Policing starts in the community.

Our police need to be in communication with our communities. We need to be building up that sense of trust that allows people to report crimes and feel as though they will be taken seriously when they do. In the last few weeks, I’ve been following some of Leicestershire’s police forces such as Harborough and Lutterworth police force who have been impressive in their communication to residents of a local village who experienced a dognapping incident. I want to see more of this.

But the issue of pet theft is a long term problem that requires a long term solution. We need to ensure that the police have adequate resources to catch the criminals before, during and after they’ve committed such crimes. We need to be recording pet theft as such, rather than just “property theft” so that we can establish the true scale of this issue. Pets are so much more than purely property.

Lastly, we need to be looking at the law. Through a change in sentencing guidelines we can ensure that our judicial system recognises the emotional and social value of our pets. Tougher sentencing needs to be introduced to our courts and criminals need to be held accountable for these disgusting acts.

Then, perhaps, Mr Fluffles will be safe.

Rupert Matthews is the Conservative Party’s candidate to be Police and Crime Commissioner for Leicestershire and Rutland.