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Rural Crime

It's often stated that some crimes are victimless.

It is also often stated that so-called Rural crime is no more than the normal urban crime, but done in an countryside area.

It's about time that these myths were stopped.

"I suffer from acute and incurable melophilia ...
a rare and delightful ailmentfrom which I am thankful that I can never be healed ...
The only symptom is a deep affection for badgers."
Phil Drabble

Rural v City Crime

One of the issues raised by the Tony Martin case (in which a somewhat eccentric farmer shot and killed a young burglar), was just how difficult it can be for the police to perform an effective deterrent role in rural areas. Notwithstanding the serious concerns about the manner in which Tony Martin killed the criminal who was burgling his house, there was a sort of tacit tabloid acceptance that Tony Martin might have been right to use the force he did, given his remoteness from the nearest Police Station. Deep in the countryside, you might almost be forgiven for thinking that a gamekeeper was, in part, an estate owners private police force.

If the situation had been somewhat different, and Tony Martin had been living in a Mayfair flat in Central London, would the tabloids have been as sympathetic if he had shot a burglar there. I would suggest that a far greater number of people would have criticised an urban Tony Martin than a rural one.

This sort of illustrates the problems we have with rural crime.

In the "city" you expect the police to be on hand reasonable quickly; so you probably don't feel justified in keeping an arsenal including several loaded shotguns around the house.

In the country, you may well know for a fact that the police can not get to your property very quickly. Perhaps, you might say, the situation can be avoided if burglars believes that a farmer would operate a shoot-first policy, and then wait for the police to arrive later.

Victimless crime?

Of course, the other aspect of rural crime and communities is one of averting ones eyes to crimes which are seen as being "victimless".

Rural communities can be close knit, and can, accordingly, allow all sorts of people to get away with rural crime, so long as it does not turn into what they might see as "real" crime.

If some local "lads" are pinching the odd pheasant or two from a wealthy landowner, most people would turn a blind eye. After all, the gamekeeper raises a thousand tiny chicks every year, so he wouldn't miss a couple of dozen adult birds, would he?

Most people too would not "shop" some-one who was poaching an odd fish or two or taking an occasional bit of game. The landowner might be wealthy enough live abroad for tax reasons anyway, and only pay his workers the minimum wages; so might the occasional deer be classed as a "perk" of the job?

Suppose a farmer accidentally puts a few gallons of "tax-free" agricultural diesel into the family car. Does it really matter if he runs his car just between the farm and the village shop? Does it matter if his car isn't always taxed if it hardly ever goes on the public road anyway?

And what about if a local drives to and from the local pub, and he's had one or two over the limit? So long as he doesn't hit any pedestrians, surely that doesn't matter either?

And then there's that guy who comes round every "now and then" selling local lamb, or pork or beef out of a cardboard box. The prices are good, but very strictly cash on the nail. Sure, he used to be a butcher, but now he's just trying to earn a few bob after the damage DEFRA and the government and the Europeans did to the farmers?

And suppose those "handy" looking lads come knocking on the nicely-painted farm door asking if then can go "rabbiting"? Well, they do drink a lot in the pub, and they've been in a fight or two, but what the hell, it's only rabbits isn't it?

Close-knit conspiracies?

Think of these examples in another way, and you might well think about rural crime in a different way too.

Suppose instead of pinching a few pheasants from a wealthy landowner, they were actually trying to sell you one of his TV sets or his new DVD player. Would that be a crime?

Suppose that instead of you seeing a poor farm worker pinching a deer, you saw a checkout girl pocket a couple of 1 coins out of the till every time she served a customer in the local food shop. Would that be a crime?

Suppose the next time you went to refill your car, the petrol station charged you an extra 5 to cover for people "who run their cars illegally on agricultural diesel and who don't tax their cars". Would that annoy you?

Suppose too that the next time you go to the pub for a celebration you pay the best part of 20 for taxis to get people home in safety without driving over the limit? Would it annoy you to see that same local stagger out of the pub, bump some-ones car in the car-park and drive home none-the-wiser?

Suppose too that the guy who comes round selling local meat has never trained as a butcher; and he's just re-selling meat he bought from an illegal slaughterhouse two or three days ago. If that meat is seriously contaminated it could leave you and your family in need of kidney dialysis for the rest of your lives. Unlike a supermarket chain, he's not going to be paying you compensation is he?

Suppose too those "handy" looking lads really came to look over your property to see how secure it was and how they could arrange to steal your tractor. Suppose, they got caught by the police in your fields, digging for badgers, and you had to appear in court before an aggressive barrister and a cynical high-court judge. I bet that would make you sweat, wouldn't it?

If you think of examples as the real crimes they genuinely are, hopefully you will understand why rural crime can be so difficult to crack.

So what then of rural criminals?

Of course, many so-called rural criminals may well be living the high-life in the towns and cities, and know no more about the countryside than how to get to its most lucrative properties and businesses.

In other cases, there may well be networks of informers (who gather information about which farmers own which types of tractors and farm equipment and how securely it's stored). Once farm equipment has been stolen, it can be stripped down into its main components and shipped abroad in less than 24 hours.

They may also groups of crooks with real countryside experience - such as how to find rare birds eggs, or protected species or how to stalk and shoot a deer at night, or how to locate a badger sett and how to dig out those badgers.

They may also be groups who know who else is breaking the law and how they can be pressured (or blackmailed) into the scheme. One particular farmer might well think it's OK to be running his car on "red" diesel, but it's not really a good idea if it results in him being blackmailed into lending one of his barns to a gang so they can arrange illegal cock-fighting, or badger-baiting or some other event.

The Big Event

One important aspect of rural crime is the extent to which it can be linked to wildlife crime; and the extent to which it can be linked to extensive criminal organisations.

This might start as a group of lads wanting to go rabbiting. It might also mean that they are looking at the farmhouse. Does that satellite dish mean the farmer has got a large-screen TV? Does two or three telephone lines mean he has a new computer with an internet connection? Does the fact that he's wearing a "Range Rover" wrist-watch mean he's got a brand-new Vogue SE in a garage somewhere?

This might then follow on to them "sussing out" the security of the farm buildings (gated, padlocked, alarmed, etc) and having a crafty look at what vehicles and farm equipment there is on display.

Once away from the farm buildings, they might start working out how to approach the farm and leave so they can't be seen at night. They might wonder where to park and conceal vehicles. They might also start looking for evidence of badgers and other protected or valuable species. Even if they can't get them now, at least they will know where to look next time.

And then of course, they might even kill the odd rabbit or two, just to show the farmer that they "meant well" after all.

Six months later, two vans are driven onto farmland at night. The headlights are off and the vans are hidden behind a tall hedge. The men get out of the vans, and use their terriers to find where the badgers are, and then they start digging. Two male badgers are captured and bundled into cages in the vans. One female badger tries to save her cubs, so she is killed with several clumsy blows from a spade.

Meanwhile, some members of the gang have started drinking vodka in one of the vans - empty glass bottles are thrown into the fields for the cows to tread on. One of the terriers has been injured fighting a badger underground (looks like a broken jaw and some serious injuries to its face). It won't be taken to the vets, and it will lose sight in one eye, if it survives. The other terrier is still stuck underground, and the criminals want to get going. They abandon it and start up the vans.

One van goes back to the city, so it can be returned to its rightful owner. The other van, which now contains the badgers, and goes back to that remote farm where the farmer is dealing in "red" diesel. He will break the law again, by keeping the badgers in a barn until he gets a "phone call".

It's two days later, and one of the captured badgers has died, and the other has had most of its teeth pulled out and its claws broken.One of the criminals now has an infected gash on his wrist - it's not the sort of thing he wants to go to hospital with. The surviving badger is driven away in a van. The dead badger is slung out onto the road to make it look like it died in a road accident.

In a remote barn, 120 miles away, 80 or so criminals place bets on how long they think the badger will survive in the fight with two large dogs. Most of the men are drinking beer or vodka from glass bottles, a few are also selling illegal drugs, whilst others are comparing notes about which farmers have got one of the new Range Rover Vogue SEs in dark blue with AirCon and so on. Meanwhile the illegal bookmakers are rapidly hiding the genuine cash they've taken off the punters, so they can pay out in counterfeit currency, "stained" notes or dodgy shop vouchers or whatever.

Six months later, the first farmer is a bit cheesed off. He got home to find he'd been burgled. They hadn't taken the Range Rover, but they did steal the new Land Rover Defender TD5, along with the good Ifor Williams trailer he bought last year. What was even more annoying is that they'd obviously put the new Suzuki Quad-Bike in the trailer too, along with the microwave, the TV, the kids computers and an Exercise bike.

Rural Coppers

As budgets have been cut, and as rural property prices have increased, closing rural police stations has been an easy option. That, in itself, is bad enough, but when you realise that most rural police cover operated as a "skeleton" service at the best of times, police cutbacks are very worrying to many people in the countryside.

With the fewer police officers being seen in the countryside, it means that they have less opportunity to get to know who the "bad" lads are and to try and get them back to a straight way of life before they become career criminals. It also means that some areas of the quiet countryside can become frequent haunts for criminals. Far too often these haunts are very well known to the locals (who see the evidence of empty vodka bottles, alcopops, needles, illegal waste dumping, suspicious vehicle movements late at night and so on), but unknown to the police.

And the moral of the story?

Crime is called "crime" for the very reason that it is wrong. Allowing what might seem like small crimes to take place, constitutes a tacit acceptance that more serious crime will take place sooner or later.

Too often people can kid themselves into believing that crime is victimless - especially where no human makes a complaint at the time. Importantly, the victims of wildlife crime rely on us to argue their case for them, and to use the laws we have introduced to protect them.

If, despite the efforts of local police officers, the police service aren't aware of crimes and crime locations, they need to be told. If your gut feeling is that a crime is taking place, then you owe it to your family, your neighbours and to your wildlife to phone the police and tell them about it.

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