A rural crime-fighting team has been set up to tackle thefts in the countryside. But it’s not police on patrol - it’s local farmers.
Armed with a wealth of local knowledge, a list of suspect registration numbers, and a police radio, these volunteers are joining officers on regular patrols.
The idea is that the farmers, with their local knowledge and expertise, can pass on informed reports for police to act upon.
“It’s like a neighbourhood watch scheme for the rural districts,” said Sgt Andrew Tiffany, of the Ripon and Pateley Bridge Safer Neighbourhood Team.
“These volunteers are the eyes and ears of the countryside.”
Suspicious activity stands out, say police, in rural areas where farms and houses are quite spread out and isolated.
“It’s almost impossible to predict what’s going to happen,” adds PC Bill Hickson. “By the time we see a trend in rural crime, it’s moved on.
“But these farmers know if something’s out of place.
“For us, out patrolling, it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack. The area is so huge. But with half a dozen farmers joining us, we can see what’s going on.”
The scheme has been established by Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) Sharon Wilson, who covers Masham, and Steph James, who covers Pateley Bridge.
With such a vast area to cover, and with crime so rare, they found they were often reliant on local people - and local reports - to find out what is going on.
The new link with farmers, many of whom have lived in the area for decades, gives police the benefit of their local knowledge.
“We are asking them to make us aware of anything suspicious, “ said PCSO James. “People who, when approached, say they are lost but really they are having a ‘recce’ - and looking around.
“These are the best people to have out there. They know the area better than anyone. They know everybody who should - and shouldn’t - be there.”
The scheme, with sponsorship from a local haulage company Hymas, has proven a success in Masham and is hoped to be rolled out across Pateley Bridge and Nidderdale.
“We don’t get much crime out here - it’s quad bike thefts at the moment,” said PCSO Wilson. “We had a spate of fuel thefts last year, a spate of allotment break ins.
“We even had an ATM stolen from the Co-op in Masham - they took a JCB from a local farmer to pull it out of the wall and hid the getaway vehicle on a local farm.
“In that case, they made such a noise it woke up a lot of people. Folks were filming it!
“When something happens around here, it is unusual. That’s why it’s so worthwhile to report anything odd.”
‘Farmers should sign up’
Gavin Robson, a farmer from Masham, joined the Rural Watch Scheme after he was targeted by burglars.
“There’s too much crime, but the police are overstretched,” he said. “We just want to help.”
Thieves targeted Gavin’s farm last April, sneaking up in the early hours of the morning to steal his quad bike.
“It was lambing time when they hit,” he said. “I was falling asleep downstairs, and I woke at 3am. I looked up and saw lights on. I went out and they were gone.
“Just as I got up the farm lane, I saw them. They slipped up because it was snowing. Went straight into a wall.
“But it was police, with dogs and helicopters, that caught up with them.”
He believes it was a planned burglary.
“People say it’s opportunist thieves,” he said. “But I think they sit and watch us. It’s dark, it’s rural. In a village, you can see someone hiding. Out here you can’t.
“We’ve never been touched for 25 years. Then all of a sudden, we got hit. Our lass still says ‘I bet they come back this lambing time’.”
Thieves are targeting farms, he said, especially for items such as quad bikes.
“If they haven’t got them chained to the floor, they’re gone,” he said. “I can’t see where the market is. They are just disappearing.
“Two farms near us were hit at Christmas. They pinched their Christmas trees.
“One farmer has had two or three quads taken. Batteries. Small tools. Steel saws. It has a big impact - every slight noise makes you jump.
“One farmer, last year, got hit in thick fog. He went away at 10am, came back at 11am, it was gone. That was the fourth one he had taken.
“We’re not talking about people who don’t know what they’re doing - they know.”
More farmers should get involved in the rural watch scheme, he said.
“If every farmer put in four or five hours a week, we would have a wealth of volunteers,” he said.
“We have a ride about and find somewhere to sit and watch.
“If we see something moving about, we go and investigate.
“We radio it in to police. Keep an eye on them. We never know if they’ve got weapons, or if there’s more of them than there is of us, so we don’t get too close.
“There’s always crime in the countryside, whether it’s sheep thefts or taking tools. But this isn’t the way to do it.
“Stealing isn’t an honest way to make a living.”
Groups can bid for up to £20,000
Julia Mulligan, Police and Crime Commissioner for North Yorkshire, said:
“As the commissioner for the largest rural police force in England, I am particularly keen to support initiatives like this one in Ripon. I have been out with rural and farm watches before and know first-hand how helpful they can be for local communities, as well as sources of information to the police.
“I have a community fund where groups can bid for anything up to £20,000, and the panel would happily consider bids put forward by watch schemes like this one. Thirsk Country Watch for instance recently had a bid approved for night vision equipment.
“Schemes like this are also being backed up by action from North Yorkshire Police with Operation Hawk so far leading to 150 arrests and counting.
“To tackle rural crime effectively we need our communities and police to work together, and that’s exactly what is going on in Ripon.”
Rural Crime figures
Since April 2013 (2012 in brackets)
Burglary - 52 (45)
Theft - 41 (41)
Vehicle offences - 23 (13)
Burglary - 32 (34)
Theft - 29 (29)
Vehicle offences 21 (11)
How to get involved
Police are looking to roll the Rural Watch Scheme out across Nidderdale and Pateley Bridge and a meeting is to be held at Pateley Auction Mart tonight, Feb 20, at 7.30pm for farmers who want to get involved.