Farming News - Why farms are becoming crime targets, and can farmers protect themselves?

Why farms are becoming crime targets, and can farmers protect themselves?

Article by Niamh Spence

Those in the farming industry are no stranger to crime threats to their business, their land and even to themselves.


Whilst the UK Government focuses on initiatives that can support the industry to the tune of £2.4 billion, the question of supporting farming businesses against the threat of crime is glaringly obvious. Farmers have spoken out repeatedly in recent years as they struggle to protect their territory and livestock, sometimes even finding themselves face to face with the criminals on their properties and even in their homes.

With few  repercussions for criminals operating in rural areas and no continuity of support from law authorities, especially across parts of Wales and Ireland, it can feel like a losing battle for those in agriculture. Some might even consider taking matters into their own hands.

Rural areas are ‘open targets’

Rural crime data, analysed by the BBC, shows that crime suspects are far less likely to be charged for crimes in the countryside than those suspected of crimes in urban areas. The data showed that in 2021 just 31,411 suspects were charged for 455,845 recorded crimes, a rate of 6.89%. Whereas in urban areas, 325,727 charges were made against suspects for 3,809,865 offences at a contrasting rate of 8.55%. This shows that the proportion of suspects charged for offences in towns and cities is 24% higher than in rural areas.

Data for 2022 and 2023 doesn’t show a huge improvement, and data from the latest NFU Mutual Report demonstrated a sharp spike in vehicle theft. Given these are the assets that can be most quickly targeted and removed, we can infer that the crime rate is showing no sign of slowing. In fact, rural crime cost the UK an estimated £49.5m in 2022, up from £40.5m compared to the previous 12 months, and this growth is anticipated to continue.

This has left many in the agricultural sector still feeling that more could be done. And more importantly, calling for more to be done to support farms and prevent them being seen as crime targets.

Last year saw some police forces in the UK, introducing methods such as drone surveillance to try and support farms in remote rural areas, as well as increased patrols to try and deter crime from occurring. But that doesn’t appear to be tackling the problem enough according to many in the industry.

The view is similar in Ireland where rural crime is still on the rise and confrontations and efforts by farmers to protect their land and livelihood has become even more prevalent with attention on high profile cases in the media. Rural crime seems to be on the increase across the country, with criminals displaying a worrying understanding of just how best to target agricultural businesses with impunity.  Farmers have been calling for more support from the law enforcement authorities, but so far , it appears, with little result.

In March a local policing and community safety partnership (PCSP) in the Derry City and Strabane policing district, reported that agricultural crime rose by 130% last year. PCSP member Thomas Conway said he believes a gang operating in the area may be responsible for a spate of recent thefts, telling the BBC Radio Foyle’s North West Today programme that they "certainly have a knowledge of how to handle livestock".

Call for more from the farming industry

A new research report, produced by Durham University and commissioned by the National Rural Crime Network (NRCN) in conjunction with the Countryside Alliance, Country Land and Business Association, and the NFU noted that many of those responsible for rural crime were “prolific rural offenders”. Senior criminologist Kate Tudor, quoted in the report, explained: “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.”

The report also revealed that 22 organised crime gangs are actively involved in rural crime across the UK and that despite efforts from law authorities, they were continuing to be successful in thefts and illegal activity in rural areas.

A recent survey carried out by the Countryside Alliance found that 97% of rural respondents felt that crime was a significant problem in their community, and 43% reported that they had been the victim of crime in the past 12 months.

NFU Vice President David Exwood echoed these thoughts as in a previous report he previously said: “As the NFU Mutual’s report highlights, over the past 18 months, highly organised gangs of criminals have continued to plague the British countryside, stealing livestock, high-value farm machinery and expensive GPS equipment, as well as trespassing on private land and regularly fly-tipping tons of rubbish.

“The huge increase we’ve seen in criminal activity is significantly impacting farm businesses and farming families both financially and emotionally, with many rural communities left feeling vulnerable and intimidated.”

A Home Office spokeswoman told the media last year that the aim was to add more people to battle rural crime as she said: “We are committed to tackling rural crime, which is why we are providing the police with the resources they need, after recruiting 20,000 additional officers. We are supporting forces through funding for crime prevention measures, such as CCTV and better technology.

“We have legislated to require immobilisers and forensic markings to be fitted to new agricultural equipment before it is sold to customers, helping to further protect rural communities from crime.”

Approaching or preventing crime first hand

A Q&A in 2021 with PC Marc Jackson, of Wiltshire Police’s Rural Crime Team, advised those working in agriculture to consider key crime preventing steps such as not leaving keys in machinery, installing CCTV and ensuring all farm equipment has trackers or security markers. Whilst these are great advice for stopping thefts, there still appears to be little guidance for farms to protect themselves against trespassing or even alterations with criminals on their premises.

The official police guidance, as per the Metropolitan Police website, advises, “All incidents of illegal activity should be reported to the appropriate authority as soon as possible. If you are able to, make a note of any vehicle details and a description of the people involved. Always consider your own personal safety first before approaching anyone you think might be doing something illegal.”

The fine line for farmers and self-defence

At times it appears as though the law is favouring the criminals and punishing farmers.

Many people will be familiar with the case of Tony Martin in 1999, where a farmer who had been the repeated victim of burglary and rural crime snapped and fired birdshot at two intruders, killing one. Martin was initially given life imprisonment, reduced under appeal to three years. Compare this to Richard Osborn-Brooks, a Londoner who killed a burglar in self-defence using a kitchen knife and was found to have acted lawfully. While circumstances and mental health play a role, neither the law nor local police forces are offering solutions to farmers living in fear of rising rural crime and they are given little guidance on how to protect themselves.

We are seeing this play out in Ireland. A farmer called Diarmuid Rossa Phelan had been the victim of over 20 crimes acknowledged by local police in just six years, including arson, thefts, repeated and serious threats and physical assault. Whilst he’d raised his concerns to the law authorities repeatedly, it had little effect. In 2022, after being targeted repeatedly, Phelan used his rifle to shoot a dog running loose on his land and was then confronted by in an aggressive manner three men with reported links to Dublin’s organised crime families. Despite being on the phone to police at the time and dropping his rifle in order to draw a pistol and fire warning shots in the air, the men continued to advance aggressively. In his panic a third shot hit one of them, killing him despite Phelan’s attempt at first aid. He now faces murder charges.

Does the law offer support for farmers acting in self-defence?

Mark Woodman, solicitor at DAS Law, has previously shared advice online and outlines that farmers. He has noted that , “If someone is considered to be trespassing, the first call of action is to ask them to leave. If the person refuses, then a landowner is allowed to use ‘reasonable force’ to remove them.”

During a rural crime wave, farmers are considering how to handle trespassing when they feel their lives or their family may be in danger. Cases like the example in Ireland will be followed closely to see just how farmers can act in self-defence.

It’s also worth noting that the law doesn’t state that self-defence can only occur if a person is struck first. In fact it’s previously been noted that necessary force can be used if someone is fearful of being attacked as CPS guidance explains, “A man who is attacked or believes that he is about to be attacked may use such force as is both necessary and reasonable in order to defend himself. If that is what he does then he acts lawfully.”

With legal guidance saying defence is allowed yet high profile cases in the courts suggesting otherwise, it leaves farmers little recourse as they attempt to understand what they can or can’t do when faced with an imminent threat.