‘Sophisticated and organised’ crime gangs are targeting Norfolk farms
- Credit: Chris Hill
Sophisticated organised crime gangs are targeting Norfolk farms to steal valuable satellite guidance systems – potentially putting harvests at risk as machinery becomes increasingly reliant on technology.
According to the latest Rural Crime Report published by insurer NFU Mutual, the cost of rural crime in Norfolk fell by 7.1pc to nearly £1.3m last year, bucking the national trend which saw figures rise by 8.8pc to a total of £54.3m.
But one growing area of concern for the county is the theft of electronic GPS (Global Positioning System) units from tractors and combine harvesters – which cost between £8,000 and £14,000 and are essential components in modern “precision farming” systems.
Norfolk police said 18 of these systems had already been stolen from farms this year, causing financial worries as well as delaying time-critical planting, spraying and harvesting operations while stolen equipment is replaced.
Patrick Verrell, senior NFU Mutual agent in Norfolk, said GPS equipment has become a highly-prized item on the shopping lists of rural thieves, particularly during the Covid-19 lockdown when smaller, high-value items appear to have been targeted to meet demand overseas.
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“Theft of expensive GPS systems which are used to automatically guide modern tractors and combines is currently a serious problem in the county,” he said. “Very organised criminal gangs are touring Norfolk to identify where the equipment is kept on our farms and are returning at night to steal it.
“These GPS kits cost £8,000 and more – but the crime can impact farmers far more because of the delays and extra work these thefts cause.”
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One victim of these targeted crimes is North Norfolk farm contractor Kit Papworth, who had two GPS screens stolen from his combine harvester on the night before he was due to begin his 2020 harvest operations.
“These things are being stolen to order – it is very sophisticated and very organised,” he said. “In all the situations we have had, the machine has been in a building or in a farm yard where nobody else would know it is there.
“So I think these people have somehow got access to these GPS systems from the manufacturer and they are targeting a particular machine to get a particular piece of kit.
“We were very fortunate that they didn’t torch the machine to cover their tracks. We were up and running again in 24 hours, but that was 24 hours lost and an insurance claim for the thick end of £30,000. It is heart-breaking.”
Mr Papworth said manufacturers needed to find a way to make the technology more secure by ensuring that only the registered owner can use it.
“The GPS screen should be coded to my machine,” he said. “If my iPhone gets stolen no-one else can use it, so why can we not make our GPS stuff the same? Why is it reliant on me locking it to the cab to make it secure when the technology must be there to fix the problem?
“We are going to continue to see the exponential rise in technologies like GPS and drones being used in agriculture, and this stuff if going to be massively nickable unless we make it ‘geo-fenced’ and specific to the user.”
PC Jonathan Chandler from Norfolk police’s rural crime team said the constabulary is working closely with manufacturers and insurers to improve the security of GPS units and tackle the networks behind the thefts.
“Thefts are well organised and carefully researched by criminals who travel the countryside to spot tractors equipped with GPS, and then return at night to steal the kits,” he said.
“The theft of these systems is growing year-on-year, and a lot of that is down to the growing use of them. The impact on the farm is not just about the guidance system. The farmers can make an insurance claim for that, but it means they cannot get their tractor or their combine out in the field when the harvest is due and if you miss that window of opportunity it can have a very costly impact on your ability to sell your crop.”
READ MORE: ‘It’s all a bit surreal’ admits new farm chief as he takes up post amid pandemicDespite the fall in insurance claims, Norfolk’s rural residents were urged not to be complacent as concerns remain that countryside thefts could escalate as the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic bites.
Mr Verrell added: “Our provisional theft claims data for the first half of 2020 indicates that, while rural theft fell overall during the early part of pandemic lockdown, we’ve seen a number of national trends including a spike in livestock rustling in April and the targeting smaller equipment.”
According to the NFU Mutual report, Norfolk’s drop in the overall cost of rural crime contrasted with rises in its neighbouring counties, with Suffolk’s total soaring by 29pc to £1.45m last year, while Cambridgeshire saw an 18pc increase to £2.03m.
• Police are encouraging farms and countryside businesses to report any rural crimes via the Norfolk Constabulary website, or call 999 if there is a crime in progress.