City gangs behind burgeoning crop of countryside crime

‘County lines’ drug dealing and theft are main culprits, says police commissioner

Organised criminal gangs are behind a growing wave of countryside crime, a rural police commissioner has warned.

Julia Mulligan, the head of the National Rural Crime Network and police and crime commissioner for North Yorkshire, said that so-called “county lines” drug-dealing and a sharp rise in thefts and burglaries targeting farms and villages showed that organised crime was growing.

More than 720 county lines drug networks have been set up by gangs in Manchester, Liverpool, London and other cities to sell crack cocaine and heroin in small towns and other parts of the countryside. Rural areas have also seen a 13% rise in thefts and burglaries so far this year, according to the leading farm insurer NFU Mutual.

Mulligan said police should take a more intelligence-led approach, and warned that people in the countryside say they will “take matters into their own hands”.

“I think it’s getting worse,” she said. “People are extremely worried about drug dealing – they are seeing it far more often than they ever used to, and it’s really a growing concern.

“It’s not limited to drugs. I think we’ve got a serious and organised crime problem. They are opportunistic and make money from anything they can. They know they can go out into the countryside and they have a supply chain for getting rid of things they steal.”

NFU Mutual’s rural affairs specialist, Tim Price, said two tractors worth a total of £96,000 were recovered from Lithuania after they were stolen in Scotland in 2016, and nine tractors were discovered in northern Cyprus.

The groups scope out farms to see where equipment is kept, then bring a lorry to carry off hi-tech tractors, Land Rovers, all-terrain vehicles and quad bikes, he said.

Monica Akehurst’s livestock farm in East Sussex was one of seven targeted over the Easter weekend by a gang who stole quad bikes and chainsaws. They returned the next night at 2.30am, when she was still awake helping a ewe deliver a lamb.

“I heard the strangest noise,” she said. “It really unnerved me. You think the place is your own, and to think someone is there was scary. You feel vulnerable. I couldn’t believe they would be so brazen as to come back the next night.”

Mulligan said rural communities did not believe they were getting enough of a response from police.

“You talk to farmers and landowners and they say, ‘We’ll deal with this, there’s no point reporting it to the police’. They’re worried that if someone comes on to their land that they will do something that they could get into trouble for, but they’re so exasperated that sometimes they feel that that is the only option that is open to them.”


James Tapper

The GuardianTramp

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