Gangs of ‘rural wraiths’ using e-scooters to sneak on to farms in Cambridgeshire and steal GPS

Gangs dubbed “rural wraiths” are using e-scooters to sneak on to farms and steal GPS systems, insurance claims for which nearly doubled last year to £2.9 million, a rural insurer has said.

Tuesday, 3rd August 2021, 4:55 am
Updated Tuesday, 3rd August 2021, 6:49 am
Crime update.

Amid the coronavirus lockdowns last year, NFU Mutual said the total number of claims fell by 20% to around £43.3 million in the UK.

But the cost of claims linked to the theft of GPS systems and vehicles such as quad bikes and ATVs remained at more than £9 million, only a 2% drop on 2019.

This included claims for GPS systems which nearly doubled to £2.9 million, up from £1.5 million in 2019.

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According to figures released today by leading rural insurer NFU Mutual, rural theft cost Cambridgeshire an estimated £2,018,000 in 2020. Despite a slight drop from the previous year (-0.5%), the county remained one of the worst affected counties in the UK by cost, second only to Lincolnshire (£2,480,000).

As the pandemic helped to keep criminals out of the countryside, the Eastern region as a whole saw a decrease of almost 21% with the region’s rural theft bill totalling an estimated £6.4m in 2020. Across the UK, rural theft cost an estimated £43.3m in 2020, a fall of 20.3% on the previous year, making it the lowest annual cost recorded in five years as coronavirus restrictions helped to keep thieves out of the countryside.

However, highly-organised criminals continued to plague Cambridgeshire’s farmyards over the pandemic, stealing high-value farming Global Positioning Systems, agricultural vehicles and tools.

Thieves got more ‘bang for their buck’ as they turned their focus onto smaller, high-value targets over the pandemic including farming Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Without GPS – an essential part of modern farming – harvests can be delayed, and some farmers left unable to work. NFU Mutual saw the UK-wide cost of claims for GPS almost double last year to £2.9m, as demand across the globe fuelled the crime wave.

Other rural crimes, including dog attacks on livestock and fly-tipping rose sharply across the UK. The value of sheep and cattle attacked by dogs shot up by 10% in 2020 to £1.3m in a year which saw a surge in pet ownership and countryside visits. The situation continues to worsen as NFU Mutual claims data shows the cost of attacks rose 50% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period last year. DC Chris Piggott, from the National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service, a police unit funded by businesses, said: “Rural thieves are becoming more and more sophisticated to get round high levels of security on modern farm machinery.

“The pattern we are increasingly seeing is of gangs who patiently watch farms from a distance to discover where expensive tractor GPS kit is stored.

“They generally return at night to steal, and are now using silent electric scooters to get into farmyards undetected and make off at high speed.

“Thieves are also becoming even slicker stealing quad bikes – watching for hours to rush into farm yards and steal them when they are left unattended for a few minutes.”

Dog attacks on farm animals also rose sharply as visits to the countryside and pet ownership increased during the pandemic, the insurer’s annual report on rural crime said.

The first quarter of 2021 saw the value of insurance claims by farmers relating to attacks jump 50%, having already risen 10% to £1.3 million for the whole of last year.

Livestock theft fell by 25% to a cost of £2.3 million, apart from in the South West where it rose by a third, from around £248,328 in 2019 to £345,825 in 2020.

The top three counties most affected by rural crime by total value of insurance claims were Lincolnshire (£2.48m), Cambridgeshire (£2.02m) and Essex (£1.65m).

Rebecca Davidson, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, said: “Coronavirus restrictions, beefed-up security on farms and more effective police rural crime teams provided a welcome fall in rural thefts last year.

“While lockdown may have locked some criminals out of the countryside – rural crime hasn’t gone away.

“Thieves are now returning armed with new tactics and targets.

“As the economic impact of the pandemic bites, we are very concerned that rural theft may escalate significantly.

“Last year saw sharp rises in other crimes such as dog attacks on livestock which caused appalling suffering to farm animals and huge anxiety for farmers and their families as they dealt with the aftermath.

“Organised criminal gangs also continued to target farmyards for high-value GPS systems, quad bikes and tractors with the cost of agricultural vehicle theft remaining at over £9 million – only a 2% drop in cost from 2019.”

The company is investing £430,000 in rural security schemes this year.