SCOTLAND'S pandemic lockdown had at least one silver lining, as it severely curtailed the activities of thieves roving in rural areas – but since travel restrictions have lifted, the criminals have returned with renewed enthusiasm.

According to the latest figures for theft-related insurance claims in the countryside, the post-lockdown crimewave that erupted in 2021 cost rural Scotland an estimated £2.6m, up 52% from 2020.

Countryside insurer NFU Mutual’s annual Rural Crime Report, released on August 2, identified that once again, it is the sought-after quad bikes and high value machinery to be found on farms and estates that are the primary target of criminal gangs.

As shipping delays and the effects of Covid and Brexit contributed to low supply and a rise in demand for all-terrain vehicles from legitimate sources, thieves turned their sights to these 'hot-ticket' items to feed a voracious second-hand market of unregistered machines.

However, efforts by Police Scotland and cross border police working, along with the expansion of the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime, has managed to apprehend some of the culprits and recover some of the stolen machinery.

Over the past four years NFU Mutual has invested over £240,000 to support SPARC, and in 2021 provided a 4x4 vehicle to help rural crime officers in remote locations, along with hundreds of forensic property marking kits.

Initial claims indications for the first quarter of 2022 have shown encouraging signs that the value of rural theft in Scotland dropped again at the start of this year. However, with the cost of living crisis and criminals becoming more active, the insurer has urged rural communities not to be complacent.

Scotland area manager Mark McBrearty said: “With prices of essential farm equipment such as tractors and quads rising fast and the cost of diesel soaring over the past year, there’s little doubt that criminals will be trying to steal from farms.

"We also know that essentials of rural living like heating oil tanks will only become more attractive to thieves as costs rise. A recent poll by NFU Mutual reveals that 89% of respondents believe inflation will lead to an increase in rural crime.

“We’re advising rural people to review their security, to help prevent crime and disruption. The good news is that the work of the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime operates across the whole of Scotland and has a clear strategy to tackle rural crime through visible policing, sharing intelligence and advice, involving farmers and the wider community.”

Constable Lynn Black, of the Police Scotland National Rural and Acquisitive Crime Unit, said: “In the past year we have seen an increase in rural crimes in Scotland being committed by nominals from south of the Border linked to organised crime.

"Operation Hawkeye, a cross border rural crime initiative which sees Police Scotland, Northumbria, County Durham, Cumbria and now Cleveland forces share information and intelligence, has seen some excellent results in identifying and apprehending these individuals," said Constable Black.

"Also, through our 15 local PARCs (Partnerships Against Rural Crime) we have encouraged the public to report rural crime and suspicious incidents in our rural communities which helps build up a picture as to where the majority of rural crime is being committed, allowing focused and proactive policing in these areas.”

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Alasdair Macnab, chair of NFU Scotland’s legal and technical committee, added: “Rural theft continues to impact on farmers and crofters across Scotland and these latest figures show the need for increased vigilance. It remains hugely important that our members continue to report all cases of rural crime, including theft, to the relevant authorities if we are halt the increase in incidents in its tracks.

"At a national level, we work closely with SPARC to ensure our members concerns are heard and the positive steps we are taking towards reducing rural crime in Scotland continue. At a regional level, we also encourage our members to be as involved as possible with the many regional PARCs now established in Scotland. These are the best platforms to give and receive up-to-date information on criminal activity at a local level.”

The total UK cost of agricultural vehicle theft reported to NFU Mutual remained at over £9m last year. In particular, Land Rover Defender owners battled a barrage of crime as the rocketing value of second-hand cars and replacement parts saw thieves stealing the iconic British 4x4 vehicles and stripping them down, with the cost of claims shooting up by 87% to £2.6m nationally.

The number of fuel theft claims received by NFU Mutual fell from 2020 to 2021, but with record high prices for diesel and heating oil, NFU Mutual claims data from the first half of this year indicates the frequency and cost of fuel theft claims have more than doubled compared to the same period in 2021.

Mr McBrearty added: “Crime in the countryside causes high levels of anxiety and disruption, with many farmers and rural homeowners feeling vulnerable due to their isolated location. NFU Mutual is responding by helping those living and working in rural areas to put in place effective security measures and by continuing to provide major support to enable dedicated police resources to tackle crime.

“As each farm or home is different, every property needs a different approach to keeping thieves out – and there’s an armoury of measures to help do so, from traditional fortification, to technology using movement sensors, to community information networks.”