International drug gangs target UK rural areas, report warns

Some 22 organised crime gangs are actively involved in UK rural crime (Photo: Cheshire Police Rural Crime Team)
Some 22 organised crime gangs are actively involved in UK rural crime (Photo: Cheshire Police Rural Crime Team)

Farmers and rural businesses are living in fear due to growing organised crime, including those linked to the international drugs trade, a new report warns.

The report from Durham University, commissioned by the National Rural Crime Network and farming groups, claims many crimes are committed by ‘prolific rural offenders’, rather than opportunistic individuals.

These criminals intentionally victimise rural communities in multiple ways, the report says, including through violence and intimidation, during long and sustained criminal careers.

Data carried out by senior criminologist Dr Kate Tudor found that many rural criminals are also involved in the supply and sale of drugs, often on a large and global scale.

Foreign organised crime networks are also deeply involved in sustaining the UK’s rural crime problem by creating international transportation and disposal routes for goods stolen from the UK countryside.

Responding to the report, farming groups say police forces across the UK are treating it as a small-scale issue, despite these gangs increasingly preying on rural communities.

Dr Tudor said that essentially, these criminals were "entrepreneurs working in the field of illicit business".

"They are already well grounded in crimes such as drug dealing, but they’re always looking for new and emerging business opportunities.”

Additionally, the report reveals that some 22 organised crime gangs are actively involved in rural crime across the UK.

However, only a small number of them are mapped in formal police procedures, which not only means the full extent of organised crime activity in rural areas is unknown, but crimes are less likely to be a priority for police intervention.

The gangs also intentionally cross the borders of police force boundaries to exploit the weaknesses in policing methods, according to the report.

Agricultural machinery and vehicle theft, hare coursing and poaching, theft of livestock, and fly-tipping are just some of the crimes found to have devastating consequences for farmers.

The report found that the costs associated with the theft of agricultural machinery and vehicles alone were £11.7 million, an increase of 29% from the previous year.

It also underscores that both fear of crime and first-hand victimisation are rampant. Of those recently surveyed by the Countryside Alliance, some 97% of rural respondents felt that crime was a significant problem in their community.

And just under half (43%) of those surveyed reported that they had been the victim of crime in the last 12 months.

Despite this, rural communities claim they feel unsupported due to what the report describes as a ‘collapse in police-community relationships’, which has ‘significant consequences for feelings of safety in rural areas’.

Rural communities are found to have a lack of faith in rural policing, feeling that police do not take rural crime seriously, which results in frequent underreporting of crimes.

In response to the report’s revelations, the NRCN has set out ten recommendations which it believes will help the countryside fight back, including an overhaul of the way police prioritise rural crime.

They have called on the College of Policing to review and update their Threat, Harm and Investigation guidelines (THRIVE), used to assess the right initial police response, to better reflect the organised element to rural criminality.

Additional measures include recruiting specialist rural crime coordinators, implementing tougher controls at ports and borders, and issuing new rural crime sentencing guidelines.

Tim Passmore, chair of the NRCN and PCC for Suffolk said: “People in rural areas are paying higher and higher taxes but often feel that policing in their communities is not a priority.

"This new research provides clear evidence that criminal gangs from the UK and abroad are using our countryside to commit crimes that fuel the drugs trade and other serious criminal activity.

"It is now time to acknowledge that if we want to stop the organised crime gangs we have to better protect our farms, businesses and rural communities.”

NFU vice president, Rachel Hallos said gangs of criminals have continually plagued the British countryside in recent years, stealing livestock, valuable farm machinery and expensive GPS equipment.

“The NFU believes more can and should be done and we welcome the NRCN’s recommendations in response to their report," she said.

“Farms often double as family homes and small businesses and these crimes leave many rural communities feeling vulnerable and intimidated.

“The importance of collaboration between farmers, policymakers and police forces to effectively tackle rural crime also cannot be understated."

The report was commissioned by the National Rural Crime Network in conjunction with several farming organisations, including the Countryside Alliance, Country Land and Business Association, and NFU.