Farmers' frustrations over the handling of rural crime within an "urban-centric" justice system have sparked calls for a united countryside voice to hammer home its impact.

Senior police figures were joined by farmers and landowners' leaders to discuss the topic at the Royal Norfolk Show.

The event, hosted by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) and chaired by EDP editor David Powles, debated ongoing issues including tractor GPS thefts, fly-tipping and sheep worrying.

Chief constable Paul Sanford also raised concerns over a looming new challenge as the soaring cost of fuel and fertiliser creates targets for theft on Norfolk farms.

Eastern Daily Press: Hare coursing has reportedly fallen by almost a third across the East of England following a collaboration between seven police forcesHare coursing has reportedly fallen by almost a third across the East of England following a collaboration between seven police forces (Image: PA Archive/PA Images)

But with the post-harvest peak for hare coursing looming, there was a focus on this illegal blood sport, which brings intimidating criminal gangs into fields to bet on dogs chasing wild hares.

Norfolk police say their statistics show a reduction in reported incidents of rural crime in the last two years, and reports of hare coursing have fallen by almost a third following a “borderless” police crackdown across seven counties.

But farmers said it remains a major worry, and expressed frustrations over the number of convictions and the leniency of sentences.

Norfolk's police and crime commissioner Giles Orpen-Smellie praised the work of the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) and court system, but said much of the law and order legislation coming out of Westminster is "shaped more by problems in inner London boroughs", such as knife crime.

He added: "So when you go the other way, and talk about hare coursing or sheep worrying, they don't understand.

"Often, if you talk to magistrates about GPS theft, they think its a £100 thing you stick on your dashboard. They don't understand it is a £10,000 high-precision piece mounted on a tractor.

"It is that complete cultural lack of understanding. But we have got to gather all the rural partnerships together to really create a loud voice because one PCC in a rural county gets lost in the noise.

"If we can harness the CLA, the NFU (National Farmers' Union), all the farming organisations, all the MPs, all the PCCs, we can create a crowd scene that could drown out the worries about knife crime in the London boroughs that drives an awful lot of law and order policy."

Eastern Daily Press: Rural crime discussion at the Royal Norfolk ShowRural crime discussion at the Royal Norfolk Show (Image: Brittany Woodman/ Archant)

Norfolk farmer and CLA vice president Gavin Lane said although communication between police and the rural community has "improved dramatically" over the last 20 years, hare coursing was still "right at the top of the list" of concerns for his family farm near King's Lynn.

"We have seen some horrific stuff," he said. "It is is still an issue and the gangs are well equipped and well organised and well mobilised and that will always be a problem."

Mr Lane added that his own experiences in magistrates' court had led to "extreme frustrations" over the sentencing of hare coursing crimes.

"For a lot of them, it didn't seem to be any great crime in the view of very urban-centric magistrates," he said. "If you get sentenced at Norwich, it can be people with very little experience of what hare coursing is like, so they think it is slap on the wrist and it's all fine."

Paul Sanford said Norfolk police had a built a strong relationship with the local CPS, and were helped by a dedicated prosecutor who specialises in rural crime cases.

"Nonetheless, the criminal justice system is under significant strain, and the more serious cases are taking too long to get to trial, there is no doubt about that," he said.

"There is a recovery plan in place, but that will take some time to get to a level we are comfortable with."

Meanwhile, he said police were going after criminals "through any avenue we can", including seizing vehicles and dogs with the help of the county's "Moonshot" ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) teams.

"That is one of the greatest deterrents you can give to someone involved in this crime," he said. "Take their car, take their dogs, take their driving licence, and then it stops."

Eastern Daily Press: Rural crime panel at the Royal Norfolk Show. From left: Gavin Lane, David Powles, Chief Constable Paul Sanford, PCC Giles Orpen-Smellie and Cath CrowtherRural crime panel at the Royal Norfolk Show. From left: Gavin Lane, David Powles, Chief Constable Paul Sanford, PCC Giles Orpen-Smellie and Cath Crowther (Image: Brittany Woodman/ Archant)

CLA East regional director Cath Crowther said she hoped tougher new penalties announced earlier this year in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill would act as a deterrent to "a serious crime which has historically not been understood".

"With the hare coursing there are very few convictions," she said. "I think it needs education that these are not just people who are chasing some hares with dogs. They are serious criminals and they need to be brought to justice. There is a lot of work to do there."

All the panellists urged farmers to report rural crimes, not only to improve response and prevention, but also to create a true statistical picture which could inform the funding priorities for the police.

Rising farm costs create crime opportunity

Norfolk's chief constable Paul Sanford said the rising cost of commodities like fuel and fertiliser have created concerns over a corresponding rise in farm thefts.

"What we see in all forms of crime is that crime reacts to what else is happening in society," he said. "We have all seen the rising costs, and the rising cost of a commodity, sadly, and inevitably, often leads to an increase in theft.

"So far we are managing that, but I think it is going to be a challenge in the months and years ahead."

He said the response would require strong community partnerships and "significant preventative activity" - with other panellists highlighting the importance of CCTV and security devices to protect fuel tanks and stores of costly fertilisers.