The rise comes against a background of soaring values and the low supply of farm machinery worldwide. Criminal gangs have responded by establishing illicit global markets for farm machinery and technology equipment.
As a result, the UK cost of agricultural vehicle theft reported to NFU Mutual soared by 29% to £11.7m in 2022.
Thieves cashing in on supply shortages
A survey of 175 NFU Mutual agents, who are based in rural communities across the UK, found 70% knew farmers who had been repeat victims of rural crime. And 86% said thieves are cashing in on the limited supply of vehicles and rising prices.
NFU Vice President David Exwood said: “As the NFU Mutual’s report highlights, over the past 18 months, highly organised gangs of criminals have continued to plague the British countryside, stealing livestock, high-value farm machinery and expensive GPS equipment, as well as trespassing on private land and regularly fly-tipping tons of rubbish.
“The huge increase we’ve seen in criminal activity is significantly impacting farm businesses and farming families both financially and emotionally, with many rural communities left feeling vulnerable and intimidated.
“All at a time when the industry is facing numerous other pressures, not least soaring production costs.”
“The huge increase we’ve seen in criminal activity is significantly impacting farm businesses and farming families both financially and emotionally.”
NFU Vice President David Exwood
David added he was pleased to see the progress on the Equipment Theft (Prevention) Bill, which has now reached Royal Assent.
The new legislation will give the Home Secretary wider powers to make regulations that will deter the theft and resale of quad bikes and ATVs.
Worst affected counties by cost
|Region or County||Cost in 2022||Cost in 2021||% Change from 2021|
GPS theft doubles
The UK cost of GPS theft increased by 15% to £1.8m in 2022. However, the problem has sharply escalated in the first four months of 2023, with the cost of GPS theft doubling to more than £500,000 compared to the same period last year.
The sophisticated equipment, typically costing more than £10,000, is used to guide tractors and combine harvesters. Without it, farmers face severe delays and disruption to harvesting and cultivating work, with long waits for replacement kit.
Quad bikes and ATVs (all-terrain-vehicles) were also top targets for rural thieves. In 2022, quad and ATV theft reported to NFU Mutual cost £3m nationally, a 34% rise on the previous year.
These vital vehicles enable farmers to complete work efficiently out in the fields. Continuing supply chain issues are sending prices of second-hand machines higher, making the vehicles an attractive target for thieves.
The UK cost of livestock theft rose 8.7% in 2022, totalling an estimated £2.7m. Claims reported to NFU Mutual regularly involve more than 50 sheep being taken in a single raid, which has a devastating impact on breeding lines as well as causing huge worry for farmers about the welfare of the stolen animals.
Amid the cost-of-living crisis, diesel and heating oil thefts plagued farms and rural homes leaving some families without heat at the coldest time of year. Fuel theft doubled last year as both organised and opportunist thieves targeted the fuel sitting in tanks across the countryside.
While Scotland saw a decrease, England, Northern Ireland and Wales saw a rise in the cost of rural crime as thieves returned to the countryside and ramped up their activity after the pandemic years.
‘Rural theft is changing’
Hannah Binns, Rural Affairs Specialist at NFU Mutual, said: “Highly-organised gangs are causing disruption to farming and widespread concern to people who live and work in the countryside.
“Rural theft is changing. It is not only opportunist thieves travelling a few miles, we are now seeing internationally organised criminal activity. These gangs target high-value farm machinery and GPS kits because they can be sold all over the world.
“Many items are stolen ‘to order’ by thieves using online technology to identify where farm machinery is stored and scope out the best way to steal it. They will also spend hours watching the movement of farming families to work out the best time to move.
“Growing up on a family farm I know first-hand the impact of rural crime goes well beyond the practical business of farming.”
NFU Mutual Rural Affairs Specialist Hannah Binns
“Loss of vital machinery and GPS equipment causes huge disruption to farmers who are already stretched to the limit and replacing kit in the current economic situation can take months, adding additional stress.
“But, growing up on a family farm I know first-hand the impact of rural crime goes well beyond the practical business of farming.
“Those targeted by criminals may often second guess themselves in the aftermath of an incident as well as live in fear of repeat attacks on what is not only their workplace, but also their family home.
“That’s why we are working with farmers to help protect their livelihoods, sharing our advice and expertise as the main insurer of farmers and providing support to tackle rural crime.”
NFU Vice President David Exwood called for a collaborative approach to tackling rural crime, and referred to the work of the National Rural Crime Unit, as “a great example of farmers, policymakers and police forces working together effectively at national and local level”.
To help farmers and rural communities protect their livelihoods from the threat posed by organised crime, NFU Mutual provided over £400,000 in support for rural crime fighting initiatives last year.
A dedicated agricultural vehicle theft unit, funded and set up by NFU Mutual in 2010, is now part of the new National Rural Crime Unit. This will strengthen work so that specialist police resources can be targeted where they are needed most to protect farmers and the wider rural community.
NFU Mutual is also supporting a new intergenerational project to train young farmers in crime prevention so they can advise other farmers and the wider rural community on practical ways to make farms secure against the threats of today’s determined criminals.