Members of the OPCC team joined by local policing teams,
rural crime team and call handlers at Tavistock Goose Fair
It’s fair to say that rural crime has something of an image problem. All too often the focus from national policymakers is on the troubles experienced in our inner cities. That’s why I welcome the chance that the Rural Crime Week of Action, which runs until Sunday (October 13th) gives us to focus on force areas like ours.
Compared to the knife crime that has a grip in some of Britain’s cities at the moment it might be considered that ‘countryside’ criminality appears quaint. The reality is though, that people in rural communities experience crime just like anyone else – and the fact that Devon and Cornwall are sparsely populated only adds to the challenge.
An example might be ‘sheep rustling’ – a crime which to urbanites might conjure up images of rustic rascals pinching the odd animal off each other. In reality the theft of livestock is carried out by serious and organised gangs who sometimes resort to violence if challenged.
Livestock theft creates an underground market of meat that has not been slaughtered or stored properly and puts the livelihoods of decent and hard-working farm workers at risk. This is no small issue. In one incident alone last year a sheep farmer near Exeter lost animals worth £32,000 and in the three years to 2018 a total of 2,946 sheep were stolen from the force area – and that’s only what was reported.
In addition vital equipment like quad bikes and farm machinery is targeted in the dead of night, and is destined to be spirited away to other parts of the country or overseas.
These thefts have a devastating impact on small businesses and the morale of people who work in the industry, but crime does not have to be rural in its nature to disproportionately affect residents of rural areas. The National Rural Crime Network, which I support, reported in the summer that there was evidence to suggest that domestic violence is under-reported in rural areas and perpetrators use rurality as a weapon to keep their victims silenced and isolated.
The range of crimes that is affected by rurality is wide too. As anyone who reads this column knows I am deeply concerned about the number of people killed and seriously injured on our roads, and most of the fatalities on our vast network of roads occur on lanes.
Because we have such a large force area and relatively few officers in comparison to urban forces it can be tough for our officers to respond to incidents.
In the summer these problems are exacerbated by the fact that we see huge rises in the population and a corresponding rise in incidents. Between April and September we see an increase in incidents of 14%, there is an 11% increase in crimes and an 18% increase in high risk missing people cases.
The force has invested more than £11m in a rural crime and incident response strategy in order to combat these problems in the past three years – money that we have asked the Home Office to reimburse us for through the Special Grant application we submitted last month.
This week my team have been out and about speaking about the steps that have been taken to reduce crimes in rural Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and giving advice on prevention. Among the resources that have been dedicated to this problem are the rural crime team, who spoke to people at Haytor during a day of rural crime-related activity on Thursday.
And on Wednesday people who visited my office’s stand at the Tavistock Goose Fair had a chance to meet the team who focus on rural affairs.
Both the Rural Crime Team and the rural specials offer great advice on deterring criminals, as well as practical help with kits that can mark equipment. There is also help on hand for victims of all sorts of crime via our Victim Care Unit, which can be contacted via the website victimcaredevonandcornwall.org.uk or on the phone at 01392 475900.
It’s also vital that people report crimes so we have an accurate picture of what’s going on across Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. This can be done via the force website at devon-cornwall.police.uk or by calling 101.