Norfolk rural crime crackdown bearing fruit as survey details �8m cost of thefts to farm businesses last year

A pioneering scheme to cut rural crime targeted at farm businesses in Norfolk is beginning to bear fruit - as figures show thefts across the region rose by nearly a fifth last year at a cost of �8m.

New figures from the UK's leading rural insurer NFU Mutual, reveal the theft of fuel such as domestic heating oil and farm diesel topped the list of items targeted by rural criminals in East Anglia. Power tools such as chainsaws and lawnmowers came second followed by quad bikes, while nationally thieves have targeted expensive tractors, scrap metal, and livestock.

And with so-called 'agri-crime' across the region increasing by 18pc in 2010, it suggests there is little sign of rural crime slowing as the countryside continues to prove difficult to police, and attitudes towards security remain relaxed.

But in Norfolk, where police last year launched Operation Randall to encourage farmers and landowners to work with them to disrupt and deter criminals, there was evidence the message about improving farm security was getting through - helping to make it tougher for the thieves to strike.

Dept Supt Nick Dean, the man in charge of Operation Randall, said that since its launch, police have made 70 arrests linked to the thefts of scrap metal, plant machinery such as tractors, and wildlife offences such as poaching and trapping.

Officers had also seen a substantial rise in the amount of tip-offs and information reporting suspicious activity from the public and farm businesses - from 34 intelligence reports to 180 since the operation's launch.

The force had also tasked a dedicated team of 12 special constables to join the operation and visit businesses seen to be most at risk as part of a bid to step up security and reassurance.

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'We've been very successful,' Mr Dean said. 'What we have seen is a much more robust stance from Norfolk Constabulary, and while nationally the figures have gone up, what we have tried to do is stem that rise and start to make inroads. The stuff that's been coming from both the public and the officers has been tremendous, and what we have been able to do is link a number of people into groups based on their activities and vehicles and start to see how they operate.'

Police have also worked with Environment Agency and Trading Standards officials and the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency to carry out roadside checks in the hunt for suspected criminals.

Tony Bone, Tony Bone, director of independent rural security organisation Farm Watch, said: 'Randall is certainly making a difference, but there is still a problem out there. The majority of jobs we are getting at present are about the theft of irrigator pumps. The police are stretched, and not really about at around 2am, but where we are able to put devices on, the farmers have been able to get themselves out and stop the thieves.

'If you go across the region they have lost a lot of tractors on the Suffolk and Cambridgeshire border, but we have managed to keep that to a bear minimum because of the security measures we have introduced, and the checks going on with Randall. Through intelligence gathering, we have also found where the thieves leave the stolen tractors to see if they have tracking devices and have recovered several before they've been able to hoik them away and take them abroad.'

Based on the 2010 claims experience of its network of more than 300 branch offices, the NFU Mutual Rural Crime Survey includes claims for crimes against homes, farms, commercial premises and vehicles.

Crooks were most likely to strike after midnight and raid outbuildings, which were reported as the biggest problem by branch officials, although garden sheds and garages had also proved tempting for thieves.

Christopher Deane, NFU Mutual Agent in North Walsham, said: 'People living and working in rural areas of East Anglia need to be vigilant and keep working with police and local communities to help fight rural crime.

'Highly organised thieves don't just target tractors and farm machinery, they can also make money from items like quad bikes and power tools that can be stolen and sold on in the blink of an eye,' Mr Deane said.

'There is no substitute for good physical security: strong locks, security lighting and maybe even a dog. It's all about taking small steps to make life much harder for rural criminals and making outbuildings more secure is an effective deterrent.'

When asked about the main reason thieves target the countryside, 41pc of branches said the fact it was such a sparse area made it difficult to police, with 32pc claiming there was less chance of thieves being seen. Meanwhile, 23pc thought relaxed attitudes towards to security measures could also be a factor.

Mr Deane said it was vital for farm businesses to do what they can to make it harder for thieves to strike.

'Taking the time to mark your more valuable items will make it much easier return property should it ever get stolen,' he added. 'Unless they are marked and identifiable, many farm and household items can be difficult to trace but very simple for criminals to sell.'