Opinion: as has been shown in the UK and Australia, co-operation, dialogue, government funding and innovative use of new technology are essential

By Ciarán CrowleyUniversité de Lille

Rural dwellers and farmers are still faced with crime and a feeling of insecurity. Last October, deputy president Richard Kennedy of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) declared to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality that rural areas are experiencing more crime, and reporting it less. Which crimes are more common in the countryside and what can rural home owners, farmers and communities do to combat crimes in their areas? 

Classic theft

We all know what theft is. In Irish law it is defined under Section 4 of the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001 as when a person "dishonestly appropriates property without the consent of its owner and with the intention of depriving its owner of it".

Cash, phones, laptops and other electronic devices are targets of criminals the world over. The smaller and more valuable the item, the better. Such goods are easier to sell-on and harder to trace. Cash should be kept in a safe place or very large sums placed in your bank or post office account. Gardening equipment, good-quality tools and more expensive DIY gear such as chainsaws, and lawnmowers  should be stored away after use and locked in the garage or a utility room in the house.

From RTÉ Radio 1's CountryWide, a report on a new text alert system launched in Co Limerick

CCTV cameras are being increasingly used and are more affordable as well. Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan has encouraged rural groups to avail of funding for community-based CCTV cameras. The Gardaí also unveiled Operation Thor in 2017 to deal with an increase of theft and burglaries. For those with valuable equipment and larger items like quad bikes, CCTV cameras are essential as such items are often shipped out of the country soon after being stolen. Such thefts by organised gangs have been widely reported across the country. Finally, visiting neighbours, observing any unusual cars and keeping a guard dog are further ways to protect your property.

Farm and agricultural crime

"Everything on a farm is of value to someone." This is what Crime prevention officer, Sgt Graham Kavanagh said in September at the National Ploughing Championships so the challenges facing farmers are considerable.

Agricultural crime takes various forms. Theft of machinery, livestock and crops are unfortunately regular occurrences. Trespass, illegal hunting, poaching, lamping, felling of trees and damage to property are also costly and intimidating for all farmers, but especially older farmers living on their own in isolated areas. "Environmental crimes" such as illegal dumping, fly-tipping, polluting rivers and abandonment of cars and dangerous chemicals are a further concern.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, John Cooke's 2017 report on crime in rural Ireland

The picture in the UK

Of course, Ireland is not unique in this area and similar observations have been made in the UK. The National Farmers' Union of Cymru's Combatting Rural Crime report in 2017 found that "the cost of rural crime in the UK reached £42.5 million in 2015". Initiatives in England, such as a Rural Taskforce have been established as part of North Yorkshire Police’s Rural Crime Strategy. Similar rural-specific measures are needed in Ireland.

One major societal change in the past decade alone is how farms and the countryside are much easier for criminals to navigate. With GPS tracking systems, better road networks and now drones, once-isolated "idyllic" farmhouses can be "staked-out" by organised criminals. This has been widely reported in the British press the past year. There, two tractors worth £96,000 were recovered from Lithuania after they were stolen in Scotland and nine tractors were discovered in northern Cyprus.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Countrywide, PC Andy Long from Essex Police and Johann Tasker from Farmers Weekly in Britain on some of the responses to rural crime in the UK

The modern threat is therefore different and more dangerous. No longer is the criminal a local opportunist and the culprits are instead highly organised criminals. The BBC reported this trend in August quoting Detective Con Chris Piggott who said that "organised crime has realised that there's big revenue to be made exporting this stuff across the world".

A Wildlife Crime Policing Strategy and Rural Affair’s Strategy has been launched to tackle wildlife and rural crime across the UK. The findings of the report will sound familiar: rural dwellers and farmers "being watched or staked out", livestock "being stolen for slaughter and processing outside regulated abattoirs before illegally entering the food chain" and "thieves cloning the identities of large, expensive tractors to make them easier to sell and harder to detect". It is thus time to start developing efficient crime prevention responses.

The Australian story

Rural law and rural criminology is well-developed in Australia. Professor Elaine Barclay, an expert in the area of agricultural crime, wrote a report in 2001 entitled Property crime victimisation and crime prevention on farms, concluding that "agricultural crime is widespread and is extremely costly to producers, to rural communities, and ultimately to the national economy".

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, RTÉ Midlands Correspondent Ciaran Mullooly reports on a joint policing committee meeting in Longford in 2018 attended by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris

Professor Barclay outlined 39 recommendations to tackle rural crime. Some of the proposals have already been mentioned, but a key factor was communication between police and farmers to provide a "united front" against crime. It was also deemed essential that police give more recognition to rural and agricultural crime, and that government bring in stricter penalties for trespass, hunting and snooping on private lands.

The Irish response to date

Debates in the Dáil on the issue are to be welcomed to help raise awareness of rural crime. Jim O’Callaghan called for Garda-controlled CCTV and "the encouragement and promotion of GPS tracking and location devices to help protect against the robbery of farming machinery and equipment". Martin Kenny noted the need for greater community policing, while Marcella Corcoran Kennedy underscored the good work being done by Theft Stop

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, journalist Anne Lucey reports on how drones are being used by criminals to track oil deliveries

In 2017, the Agricultural Crime in Ireland report was published by Professors Kathleen Moore Walsh and Louise Walsh at Waterford Institute of Technology. It is an interesting study of the subject and involved 861 farmers across the country. The majority (almost 565 respondents) said that they had experienced agricultural crime and the average loss to a farmer who did experience crime was €4,328. More worryingly, 45% of agricultural crimes were not reported to the Gardaí. In December the Farmers Journal reported that there were some 862 reported incidents of trespass on farms and land in 2018.

Unfortunately, rural crime in all its guises will not go away in 2019, but there are numerous solutions available to rural dwellers, farmers, police and government to tackle the issue. Cooperation, dialogue, government funding and innovative use of new technology are essential in the year ahead. Rural crime prevention and combatting crimes of all forms in the countryside must become the rallying cry for all concerned looking forward.

Ciarán Crowley is a law lecturer (professeur certifié affecté dans l'enseignement supérieur) at Université de Lille, France.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ