More than 100 local farmers and police officers joined by NFU Deputy President, Guy Smith, braved a howling gale and snow flurries to celebrate 30 years of what is widely accepted as the UK's very first Farm Watch scheme in Teesdale, County Durham.
The early days of Wear & Tees Farmwatch saw local farmers Peter & Gladys Stubbs heading out after dark, patrolling the remote back roads so often used by criminals to target the farming and wider rural community.They had the vision to set up a group of farming volunteers to assist the local police - one of the first examples of volunteering and support for local policing that still thrives today.
30 years on, and with nearly 10,000 hours on patrol under their belts, they have decided to retire, leaving the modern-day Farmwatch as a much more sophisticated operation.
In 1989, when they first started, the farmer patrols ran only in Teesdale but as their successes grew Farmwatch soon covered all of Weardale and Teesdale and was the catalyst for many similar police forces to set up similar schemes.
Over the years many accolades have been awarded in recognition of Peter and Gladys' contribution. They were the first civilians to receive the Chief Constables Commendations from Durham Police, an award that is normally reserved only for police officers.
Then in 2012 the Wear and Tees Farmwatch was recognised by NFU Mutual as biggest and best farmwatch scheme in the country. However the best was yet to come, as in 2014 Peter was presented by the future King - Prince William at Buckingham Palace - with an MBE for his services to the community.
Today the scheme has more than 800 members across Weardale and Teesdale and boasts a bank of 70 volunteers who regularly work with police officers on night-time operations.
The use of technology has also heightened the effectiveness of the scheme. When it started, Peter and his volunteers used phone boxes or would go into a local farm to use their phone to alert the police but now its smart phones and instant information sharing up and down the Dales via WhatsApp. Even the radios have now been replaced with an App based ‘walkie-talkie’ system called Zello.
Addressing the event, Guy Smith said it was an honour to meet one of the NFU's few Lifetime Members - awarded in 2012 for services to the local community. Highlighting the ongoing impact that rural crime has on the farming and wider rural community, Mr Smith said as is so often the case in life, people with foresight, drive, commitment, resilience were needed on the ground to effectively get things done.
"The NFU is built on people like you," he told Mr Stubbs. And he stressed how the NFU's national work to achieve legislation fit for purpose and appropriate deterrents was amplified by action on the ground by local farmers.
"Everyone always wants more police resource," he said. "But the reality is this is probably not going to happen so we have to work with the police and help ourselves too. The Farmwatch here in Teesdale is a perfect example of that approach in action.
“This celebration highlights just how far it has come in the last 30 years and how it is still growing and evolving to meet the modern day challenges of rural crime, which remains a significant challenge for farming and local communities."
At the 30 Year event, Peter and Gladys officially handed over the reins to the next generation of Ruralwatch volunteers and were recognised for their huge contribution over the years.
In particular, Durham Constabulary Chief Constable, Jo Farrell, paid tribute, saying: “It is an honour to be able to mark three decades of Farmwatch – a scheme that so effectively brings together our officers and the rural communities they serve. It has been a great example of how we can work together to combat rural crime which can often have a far-reaching impact on the livelihoods and families of our rural residents.
“I am always impressed with the volunteers who are committed to helping us fight rural crime and I look forward to seeing the impressive work continue under the new banner of Ruralwatch.”