What makes rural crime challenging is that so much of it is unseen.
People don’t usually associate England’s countryside with crime. Crime happens everywhere, but there are big differences between urban and rural crime.
For instance, quad bikes are a common sight in rural areas - they're used by farmers, gamekeepers, and terrier men attached to fox hunts. They’re just the thing for narrow lanes, rough tracks, crossing fields and riding through woodland.
This year has seen a huge rise in quad bike theft right across the country.
What makes rural crime challenging is that so much of it is unseen. Not every farmyard has a neighbour watching and helping to prevent the theft of valuable farm machinery. Not every field has a house beside it to deter the theft of animals. Not every stable is secure enough to prevent expensive saddles and bridles being stolen.
Poaching is common, particularly deer and game birds. Fish stocks disappear from ponds, fruit and vegetables from gardens and lawnmowers from garden sheds.
One constant headache for both police and local authorities is fly-tipping. Rather than take your old fridge to the local council tip, why not dump it in the countryside? Or pay someone to do it for you.
Rural areas cover a lot of ground. The population of an urban policing area might perhaps cover 4 square miles. Policing a similar population in a rural area could cover 100 square miles or more – that’s a lot of driving for rural police who are also policing the local towns.
Cuts to resources
Farmers complain about a lack of police response. Hunt saboteurs and monitors, facing physical violence from hunt supporters, also complain that when they report an incident, the police often don’t turn up, or come too late.
Getting to rural locations can be a big challenge off the main road. Also, when a police presence is needed elsewhere or a major incident is being dealt with, not many officers are available.
They don’t have that many, full stop. Since 2010 police forces in England and Wales have lost around 21,000 officers. Between 2010 and 2015 they suffered a cut of 20 percent in their funding, some forces taking a bigger hit than others. But all are asked to do more with less money and fewer people.
In addition, some forces have also had to deal with policing the badger culls. Apparently, during the 2017 culls, Dorset officers doing 12-hour shifts had to provide/pay for their own food. Money is that tight. Of those forces dealing with culling in the western region:
- Avon & Somerset lost 672 police officers and 115 community support officers
- Gloucester lost 254 police officers and 35 community support officers
- Dorset lost 210 police officers and 78 community support officers
- Devon & Cornwall lost 635 police officers and 35 community support officers
Policing and politics
In 2012, Police and Crimes Commissioners (PCCs) were introduced. This was not popular with a lot of people, police included, who felt that politics should not be brought into policing (most of the PCC candidates ran under a party ticket).
What is interesting is that those counties that were first scheduled to have badger culling (Somerset, Gloucester and Dorset) all voted for independent PCCs.
There were some benefits. In 2014 28 PCCs with largely rural constituencies formed the National Rural Crime Network (NRCN) and county forces set up rural rime teams.
The NRCN website states: “The impacts of rural crime are many and varied. The Network is concerned with all crime and anti-social behaviour occurring in rural areas and recognises that the challenges and solutions are often different to those in cities and urban areas.”
Indeed. When the badger culls started in 2013, both Avon & Somerset and Gloucester police forces had to use urban police officers to police the culling. To those trying to protect the badgers it quickly became clear how unfamiliar urban officers were with rural ways.
Gloucester badger patrollers reported that police knew little of the Countryside & Rights of Way Act so patrollers were arrested for what was perfectly legal behaviour; police were often not equipped with suitable clothing - an absence of welly boots for one thing - and were uneasy working in the dark, due to the absence of street lighting).
In 2014 Gloucester’s policing improved as their liaison team was in contact with GABS as well as the cullers.
Dorset’s cull started in 2015. Dorset’s police had wisely noted the mistakes in policing in the previous two years and were consulting with DBBW well before the start of Dorset’s cull.
Even better, two of Dorset’s most admired wildlife officers, PCs Dave Mullins and Phil Sugrue, were on the liaison team. They were so good at their job that it is rumoured that Devon & Cornwall police sought their advice.
The policing wasn’t perfect in the first year and there were some contentious issues, but Dorset’s badger protectors could count themselves lucky that they were dealing with unbiased, well-informed officers who would follow up any reports of harassment or intimidation by farmers and culling contractors as well as incidents reported by farmers.
But at a 2016 meeting at Avon & Somerset Police headquarters, the Silver Commander of their police liaison team was challenged by a woman complaining that she was tired of her car being pulled over by police at night during the culls.
Demonstrating how little their rural policing had moved on, the reply was astonishing: “Well, if you’re driving around in the countryside after 10pm you must be up to no good.”
Was it that kind of attitude surfacing during the culls that highlighted the need for rural crime strategies and trained wildlife officers. Those strategies should meaningfully include those largely hidden inhabitants of the countryside, the wildlife.
The Essex Police Rural Strategy (2017) mentions hare coursing and has a photo of a badger.
However, their Rural Crime page says this: “Essex Police also has a force wildlife officer supported by specialist wildlife officers covering our three local policing areas; North, West and South. They specialise in investigating wildlife and environmental crime and work closely with the RSPCA to protect wildlife.”
West Mercia Police, highlighting their wildlife crime officers, seem protective of wildlife, but then say this: “We work with partner organisations like the Angling Trust and the NFU”, neither of which are known for their love of wildlife.
The NFU is a major backer of the badger culls. When beavers appeared on Devon’s River Otter the Angling Trust wanted the right to shoot them as an ‘invasive species’, despite non-fish eating beavers benefiting fish populations.
Dyfed & Powys Police cover over half the land mass of Wales, much of which is rural. They ‘have a dedicated wildlife crime officer’ - for half of Wales?
Their 2017 Rural Crime Strategy booklet says that specialist rural skills and knowledge will be developed and officers will receive "enhanced training". Wildlife crime is featured only at the bottom of a list of rural crime challenges.
On the plus side, considering that Dyfed and Powys are home to many fox hunts, the list does include illegal hunting.
Lincolnshire has always been a fox hunting county. Lincolnshire Police has a brief page on hunting and poaching which cites illegal hunting as a crime, but its list of organisations that can offer help and support includes the Countryside Alliance.
Thames Valley Police cover three counties – Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. An article describing the rural crime strategy of the combined counties makes no mention of wildlife or hunting, even though this area covers part of the Kimblewick Hunt territory.
In 2017 Kimblewick Hunt euthanised over 90 hounds because they were infected by bovine TB.
The Thames Valley website says: ‘Most forces have at least one wildlife crime officer and many have dedicated units. We also work with partner agencies to investigate, prevent and tackle wildlife crime.” Asked for more detailed information, they confirmed that each Local Police Area (LPA) has one wildlife officer, totalling 11 officers across three counties.
After a late start, Gloucester Police (covering 1216 square miles) are doing well. In June this year they officially launched their rural crime team. They say, "Rural and wildlife crime has always been investigated in Gloucestershire, but many of the officers responsible have been doing so alongside other roles and in their own time."
But what Gloucester Police have now put together is impressive: "The team comprises four Rural Crime Officers (RCOs), one in each rural policing area, who will be led by a co-ordinator and supported by 23 Rural and Environmental Crime Officers (RECLOs) and volunteers".
Avon & Somerset Police (Somerset is 1610 square miles) said it that currently has “six trained Wildlife Officers who have all received national wildlife training. Three officers are awaiting training and three have been locally trained, however, this training is not nationally accredited”.
The Devon and Cornwall Police (11 trained officers covering 3965 square miles) appear fairly anti-wildlife. Their advice page opens with a description of how wildlife damages farmland (starting with badgers) and advice on how to ‘control’ wildlife.
Not listed as a wildlife crime but under a section titled "People being cruel to animals" their website states: “Violence towards badgers, which includes being buried alive or being ripped apart by dogs”, which seems a gleefully gruesome description.
‘Being ripped apart’ should be properly listed as the crime of badger baiting. ‘Being buried alive’ is the crime of interfering with a badger sett, in this particular instance known as sett blocking. Countrywide, sett blocking is done by hunt terrier men to stop illegally hunted foxes going to earth.
There is no mention of illegal hunting. According to hunt monitors in Devon, the police do not support their efforts to stop illegal hunting, can be unwilling to intervene in assaults on monitors and take the view that, to quote: “none of this would happen if you lot went away.”
Cheshire (another county policing badger culls) has a comprehensive strategy for rural crime policing, and sends officers on Wildlife Foundation courses to train them to become Wildlife Crime Officers, but their stance on illegal hunting is not that firm.
And then there’s Dorset. Despite the culls and despite the cuts, Dorset’s Rural Crime Team is a winner. Dorset has the smallest area (1024 square miles) with the most wildlife-trained officers.
Officers are encouraged to do wildlife training. North Dorset’s PCs Mullins and Sugrue said that being a wildlife officer is "just one more hat to wear", one more duty added to the workload, then added that what is encouraging is how many choose to do the training, and choose to stay with rural policing.
Freedom of information
In recent years two wildlife issues have been dominating the work of the North Dorset team – policing the badger culls and illegal hunting with hounds.
They are determined to put a stop to illegal fox hunting, and are often seen monitoring the hunts in their area. They take seriously residents’ complaints about hound faeces on village streets, and uncontrolled hounds running across busy roads.
Here’s something that really shows the thought that Dorset puts into wildlife policing. In 2015 the government held a consultation on changing the criteria for badger culling. Among those organisations that responded were Gloucester, Avon & Somerset, Devon & Cornwall and Dorset police.
Anna Dale, known for her Freedom of Information requests, and her refusal to accept DEFRA’s and Natural England’s ‘No’ answers, finally got a copy of the police responses. Most comments were about restricted budgets, too few officers and whether the proposed changes would make policing the culls less or more difficult.
Could the police cope and would they be listened to? A Devon and Cornwall response to a question on lengthening culling periods went so far as to ask "why not decriminalise the possession or taking of badgers in cull areas."
Of all the police comments, a Dorset officer was the only one to mention something that would protect badgers and remove them from the argument about bovine TB: "If there is a need to reduce the Policing footprint and reduce cost, I believe this can be achieved if DEFRA were to consider an extension of the vaccination (of badgers) process already in being in Dorset.
"I would argue that while the NFU may be displeased, there would be reduced protest activity and confrontation."
As I said, Dorset’s rural crime team is a winner.
Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer and has written on politics, war and peace, environmental issues and her great love, British wildlife. Her work is published by various national and global outlets.