Organised crime gangs "spend hours watching farming families" in order to target raids which have sent Norfolk's rural theft costs soaring, said a countryside insurer.

NFU Mutual's annual crime report reveals that rural thefts cost the county an estimated £1.5m in 2022 - a rise of 52pc from the previous year.

Nationally, the cost of rural crime across the UK rose by 22pc to an estimated £49.5m in 2022 - however, Suffolk bucked the national trend with a 3.9pc drop to £1.1m.

The company said some thieves use drones to find out where valuable farm machinery and GPS kits are kept, or check social media to see what equipment farmers are using and when they might be away.

Patrick Verrell, senior agent at NFU Mutual in Swaffham, said: "Rural theft is changing.

"It is not only opportunist thieves travelling a few miles, we are now seeing internationally-organised criminal activity. These gangs target high-value farm machinery and GPS kits because they can be sold all over the world.

"Many items are stolen 'to order' by thieves using online technology to identify where farm machinery is stored and scope out the best way to steal it.

"They will also spend hours watching the movement of farming families to work out the best time to attack.

"Loss of vital machinery and GPS equipment causes huge disruption to farmers who are already stretched to the limit and replacing kit in the current economic situation can take months, adding additional stress."

The NFU Mutual figures came after the National Crime Agency warned earlier this month that a range of offences including agricultural crime are likely to rise amid the cost of living crisis.

Soaring farm machinery values are one of the factors attributed to a 29pc rise in the UK cost of agricultural vehicle theft reported to NFU Mutual.

The continuing problem of farm GPS thefts also saw costs increasing by 15pc to £1.8m in 2022 - however, this has escalated in the first four months of 2023, with the cost of GPS theft doubling to over £500,000 compared to the same period last year.

The sophisticated equipment, typically costing over £10,000, is used to guide tractors and combine harvesters. Without it, farmers face severe delays and disruption to harvesting and cultivating work.

Eastern Daily Press: Farm machines and ATVs are key targets for rural thievesFarm machines and ATVs are key targets for rural thieves (Image: Denise Bradley)

Sgt Matt Paine is from the community safety operational unit at Norfolk police, which is part of Operation Walrus, a national operation tackling high-value GPS thefts through community engagement and training rural crime champions within the constabulary.

"We also carry out proactive patrols, particularly in areas where we have seen an increase in offences," he said.

"It is important to recognise the [NFU Mutual] figures cover part of the lockdown period where rural crime reflected the national picture and saw a decrease as people could not move freely. This is likely to skew the figures."

CASE STUDY: Farming family's rural theft misery

One East Anglian farm which has experienced the misery of rural crime is Bramblebee Farm on the Cambridgeshire/Norfolk border near Wisbech.

Repeated machinery, diesel and tool thefts have caused massive disruption to the business and left farmer Paul Day unable to plant cereal crops. 

Last autumn, thieves took essential arable cultivation equipment – including a power harrow used to prepare fields for sowing crops. As a result, wheat and barley crops intended as feed for the farm’s pigs could not be sown.  

This spring thieves struck again, stealing 2,000 litres of diesel and returning to snatch a large haul of specialist hand tools, which cost £2,000 to replace. 

"These thefts have caused terrible disruption to our farm,” said Mr Day, who runs the mixed business with his wife Maria and their children Burt and Elizabeth

"Having our power harrow stolen just before the only window in the weather last autumn meant we couldn’t get crops in the ground and still have 20 acres of barren land. 

"It has cost us thousands of pounds and a huge loss of time.  

"The tool theft really hit us hard too. The thieves took specialist kit which is very hard to replace. Some of the tools were hand-made for my grandfather and were far superior to what’s on sale today. As a result, I haven’t been able to continue doing fencing work.  

"To protect our property, we’ve adopted a zero-tolerance approach – no machinery, kit, tools or equipment is left out. Everything’s now brought back to the farm and locked up securely – even though it adds a lot of time to routine jobs."