A police boss says he is having to make rural crime a priority as the recession fuels a rise in offences in the countryside.
Durham’s police commissioner Ron Hogg has been forced to act after sheep rustling became a significant concern for his force, while his counterpart in Northumbria, Vera Baird, has again spoken out about people being driven into crime by cuts in benefits.
Mr Hogg said his force is one of many to see crime rise in recent months, but this did not mean it would take its eye off rural crime.
Last year Durham officers investigating the organised theft of Swaledale sheep in the county recovered nearly three dozen animals. The force arranged a viewing day for farmers who had lost sheep to examine those seized animals, all of which were ewes.
Mr Hogg told The Journal: “Durham has seen an 8% increase in crime, and the bulk of that, just like Northumbria, is low-level crime, shoplifting, sheds, bikes. The main driver has been that low-level crime.
“But if we look at a rural context, one of our biggest drivers is sheep rustling. It has gone up, perhaps not significantly but it is a worry and a growing worry for rural communities and we’re working with neighbouring forces, North Yorkshire and Cumbria, to tackle this.
“It is a type of organised crime, not in the form of gangs but people who go out to do this job, not an opportunist crime.”
A variety of schemes are under way as part of efforts to tackle the crime, which the force thinks might be linked to a drop in living standards.
Mr Hogg added: “Farm Watch is very important, we have to involve the whole community, to give them radios and get them involved. We have good schemes in, say, Teesdale, Weardale, and good cross-border co-operation as well.
“We take rural crime into account when setting the budget, but it is not a major part of it, the big issues are in the large towns.
“But what we have to be careful of is that we do not overlook the sparsity. It is difficult to have high profile patrols, so we have to work very hard to keep our police numbers right in those areas.”
Durham Police has now joined a new National Rural Crime Network to help tackle the issue.
Support officer Nick Payne said: “There is a common perception that rural crime is less significant than that occurring in cities and towns. The impact of rural crime is just as serious as it is elsewhere, which is becoming an increasing problem as austerity bites and as police resources are stretched thinner.
“There are also strong links to serious organised gangs in relation to some classifications of rural crime, for example, theft of agricultural plant and machinery as well as the availability of drugs alongside more conventional issues such as wildlife and heritage crime.”
Northumbria Police Commissioner Vera Baird has also warned of a rise in crime, which she says is largely related to first-time women offenders.
“It is stealing stuff they would normally be able to pay for, such as food or nappies,” Mrs Baird said. The commissioner’s office has reported a 7% rise in crime in recent months, though the most recent figures were better.
Speaking at Newcastle Council this week, Mrs Baird said: “I feel people are being driven into this type of low-level crime by cuts in benefits.”