THE National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has announced a shock rise in the cost of rural crime.

Latest figures show that crime in the countryside cost Hampshire more than £1m last year, a hike of 48 per cent from £707,224 in 2016 which is well above the national average.

The figures form part of NFU Mutual’s annual rural crime report entitled Taking the Fight Forward, which reveals that the UK saw an average 13.4 per cent rise in the cost of rural crime last year.

The South East region also saw a rise of 30 per cent, with tools, quad bikes, all-terrain vehicles and garden equipment topping thieves’ wishlists.

In East Hampshire, Richard Buer, senior partner and agent for NFU Mutual and group secretary for the Alton and Petersfield branch of the NFU, said his office was having crime claims notified on a daily basis from farmers, businesses and private individuals living in rural areas.

And the complexity and cost of putting things right, including additional protection, can be “staggering”, with malicious damage and fly-tipping - especially if it results in contamination - being top of the list behind the theft of expensive farm machinery.

Having weathered the storm in 2008 when tractors worth as much as £150,000 were being stolen to order, including some from East Hampshire and which resulted in improvements in vehicle security, the rural community is now facing different challenges.

As the UK’s leading rural insurer, NFU Mutual has had to deal with the theft of vehicles used to rip out ATMs from buildings in the last six months - including ram-raid attacks on sites at West Meon, West Tisted and the A325 at Holt Pound - as well as thefts from houses, garages and outbuildings.

In describing rural areas as “vulnerable”, not helped by the loss of rural police beat officers, and farms in particular as “an exposed factory floor” containing often expensive equipment and machinery, Mr Buer says that the rural community has become more security conscious with imaginative use of CCTV cameras, laster beams, better and stronger padlocked gates and fencing, with some even resorting to digging trenches and banks to try to prevent unauthorised access.

“Some farms are beginning to look like fortresses,” said Mr Buer.

But when faced with incidents like the one endured recently by a Selborne farmer when an intruder inflicted malicious damage on a tank containing liquid fertiliser, dragging piping over a protective retaining wall and flooding the adjacent road and causing damage estimated at £45,000, the reason for rising costs has become clear.

A similar incident at Binsted, when an oil tank was dumped on farmland and contaminated the soil, meaning 220 tons of earth had to be moved and replaced, resulted in a £65,000 insurance claim.

Both issues saw the involvement of the Environment Agency and expensive clear-up costs, which in turn will push up insurance premiums. “No-one wins,” said Mr Buer.

As well as fly-tipping, some landowners have suffered from hare coursing, with people trespassing on their land to undertake the illegal activity, and have had “to take drastic action” to keep them out by getting diggers to barricade boundaries and install CCTV, or by simply providing enhanced physical security, all of which costs money.

With limited police resources and repeat attacks, the fear of crime is becoming a real issue in rural communities, and security is key, according to James Prewett, NFU Mutual’s senior agent in Hampshire.

“Countryside criminals continue to become more brazen and farmers are now having to increase security continually and adopt new ways of protecting their equipment.

“Fitting gates to prevent easy access to farm yards and drives is one of the most effective measures. Hi-tech security such as movement detectors, infra-red cameras and geo-fencing, which triggers an alarm if a farm vehicle moves off the premises, can also play a part.”

“Our advice to people living and working in the countryside is to evaluate your current security measures regularly and make improvements where necessary, remain vigilant, and report any suspicious activity to the local police and local farm watch schemes.”

With social media fast becoming the eyes and ears of the countryside, in July the NFU, working with Crimestoppers UK and the police, launched a dedicated rural crime reporting line. By calling 0800 783 0137 or visiting, farmers, rural businesses and the public can anonymously give information about crime relating to large-scale, industrial fly-tipping, hare coursing, machinery theft, and livestock theft.

In a further bid to tackle rural crime, the NFU is calling on both Government and the police to form a cross-departmental task force to address “the failures in dealing with rural crime”, to secure more funding for rural policing, to ensure sentencing reflects the true cost and impact of these crimes, and for research to understand rural crime and its links to the organised criminal network.