Rural Crime Action Team – protecting a way of life
When I came into office 10 months ago, one of my biggest priorities was to spend time out and about listening to the views of the public in order to get a full picture of the issues faced by people living and working in Cambridgeshire.
Cambridgeshire is still one of the fastest growing counties in the country both in terms of its economy and its population. Whilst the cities of Cambridge and Peterborough generate the highest demand on policing, the county remains largely rural in nature with its own demands and pressures.
South Cambridgeshire has a particularly high mix of villages and rural areas and high on the list of reported crimes are thefts from farms of tools, metals, and diesel.
Figures from rural insurer NFU Mutual last year show that Cambridgeshire was the fourth highest county for rural thefts but this statistic doesn’t tell the whole story. The theft of a tractor just before harvest, or electrical wiring stolen from a leek harvesting rig, can add huge costs and disruption to a farm that doesn’t have insurance in place.
I grew up on a farm myself and have many happy memories of helping out during harvest time. My grandfather taught me how to plough a field on a Track Marshall 155 with a six furrow dowdsewell.
When I became Police and Crime Commissioner, I was keen to meet with farmers to understand how they felt about this growing threat. With the advances in technology in farming since I was a boy, I wanted to understand what new issues they were facing and how I could help support the police force to respond effectively.
In October last year, I met farmers and rural business managers in rural Wimblington in the Fens, together with local representatives from the National Farmers Union, (NFU) and Cambridgeshire Countryside Watch to learn more about the knock on effects of rural crime. What was reinforced for me at that point was that rural crime continues to be a big problem in Cambridgeshire, threatening local livelihoods, putting pressure on policing resources and increasing the fear of crime.
The criminals are becoming smarter. Only last week a warning was issued to farmers in the region asking them to be vigilant after a spate of satellite navigation system thefts from tractors and sprayers. GPS systems are becoming an essential piece of equipment for farmers, and losing them can have a considerable effect on the efficiency of businesses. You can only imagine the potential income for criminals with a worldwide market for GPS systems ready to take stock.
Fortunately for Cambridgeshire, the Constabulary has already put a strong response in place.
The force set up a dedicated Rural Crime Action Team (RCAT) in 2016, as a direct response to concerns from the local community. The RCAT’s role is to combat hare coursing and poaching, as well as using specialist knowledge to deal with other aspects of rural crime including plant and tractor theft, heritage crime, arson, wildlife crime and illegal raves.
An important part of the team’s role is raising awareness of crime prevention strategies for people living in rural communities. Officers regularly meet with members of the rural community to flag and share experiences of others across the region, for example, regarding the renting of isolated buildings and barns which some organised crime groups have used to set up cannabis factories.
Activities such as hare coursing, which typically peaks in the winter months, can reap havoc across our rural communities. Hare coursing causes damage to crops, harms animal welfare and threatens the rural economy. At times it can result in intimidation and even violence. Most people do not appreciate the huge impact this has. It is not just an inconvenience. It is a major threat.
A BBC report in January 2017 described how farmers in parts in Lincolnshire have said they fear for their safety after an escalation in the level of violence used by people coursing. Farmers have reported threats of violence, verbal abuse and property and crops being damaged.
In Cambridgeshire, tackling hare coursing is a priority for RCAT. Officers have off-road vehicles at their disposal and can access air support from the police helicopter.
I’m pleased to report the team has had a number of notable successes to date.
In October 2016, working in partnership with local game-keepers, officers caught multiple hare coursing groups and seized five dogs with support from the National Police Air Service.
In February this year, fifteen incidents of hare coursing were reported in the north of the county and Lincolnshire, within the first three hours of a single day, resulting in 27 dispersal notices, 8 vehicles being seized, 3 arrests and a number reported for hare coursing offences. This was all following a day of action organised by RCAT.
Figures since October last year show that police officers have responded to hundreds of illegal hare coursing across the county, with 831 reports logged. That’s an average of seven reports each day.
However, I know that many victims of this crime feel that the sentences handed out are too lenient and do not reflect the scale of the crime. This is something that I will be following up.
The RCAT team is made up of dedicated officers, many from farming backgrounds themselves bringing a large pool of knowledge and first-hand experience of the industry. Area Commander, James Sutherland, the force’s strategic lead for rural crime, grew up on a small-holding farm and on the South Cambridgeshire border until he left for university. The family raised rare breed pigs and had a small beef herd, asparagus crop and a farm shop. He often talks about how his family suffered from occasional break-ins and thefts which often left them feeling isolated.
Inspector, Dick Turner, who manages the RCAT team, was working on a farm from the age of 13 during his school holidays and farming became his full time profession when he left school. He also attended agricultural college before joining Cambridgeshire Constabulary. Another RCAT member, Sergeant Richard Jackson also has a strong farming background.
The RCAT team continues to send a strong message to criminals: “Cambridgeshire is closed to hare coursers – we will seize your cars, your phones, your dogs and send you to court.”
Tackling rural crime is never going to be easy: the criminals carrying out these crimes can cover vast distances in a very short time scale. But it remains my duty to help reduce the impact of this criminality. Like all other residents, people living in the countryside need to have confidence in their local police service: that it will understand the pressures they face respond to their needs, and help protect their way of life.
I want the rural community to know that Cambridgeshire police are behind them. RCAT continues to make inroads into reducing rural crime. I am pleased to report I have been approached by other Police and Crime Commissioners to share the RCAT’s success. But rural crime cannot be tackled in isolation.
Working across borders with other forces and working with agencies such as Countryside Watch will be key to tackling this growing threat to what is a traditional way of life in our county.