With its sleepy villages, picturesque castles and towering hills it’s hard to picture North Wales as a crime hotspot but with the region’s rural outlook comes a very specific threat of criminality.
Everything from thefts of farm equipment, diesel, scrap metal and vehicles to the taking of livestock wildlife and environmental crime comes under the remit of North Wales Police’s Rural Crime Team and four years on from this bespoke unit’s formation in 2013, they continue to focus on the rural community’s needs with great success.
“We are only one of a handful of forces in the UK that has a dedicated team who deal with rural and wildlife crime,” says team manager Rob Taylor pictured below right.
“It is such a cross section: we get stolen quad bikes, cold callers at farms who are making excuses to have a look around and recently we’ve had a spate of farm gate thefts we are currently investigating.”
Rob, who lives in Connah’s Quay, was a police officer for more than 30 years, 21 at sergeant rank. Having previously served on the force helicopter and as a hostage negotiator for more than 10 years, he was appointed as the force wildlife officer in 2007, before becoming Rural Crime Team manager.
“I was told to start afresh with a blank piece of paper and form a team,” says Rob, who now manages four full time police constables and three full time Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) as well as four special constables.
“I think we’ve done really well. If you look at our activity on social media such as Twitter we have two million interactions and thousands of followers and that is so impactful when you are trying to get a message out to the rural community.
“Even though North Wales isn’t the biggest area there are communities and farms that don’t see people, let alone police, for months at a time.
“We are well aware of the mental health of farmers and suicide rates can be quite high but we’re there to help and work with them and solve problems together.”
For Rob one of the key areas where he is keen to see an improvement is a reduction in dog attacks on livestock and sheep.
“Sheep attacks by dogs is a huge problem and we’re really one of the first forces in the UK to acknowledge this,” he says.
“We are experiencing about 100 attacks a year which averages out at around two a week and they range from two sheep being killed to as many as 30.
“The reasons are two fold: owners with unsecured leads and owners leaving dogs in insecure conditions so that when they go out the dog escapes and gets to a nearby field and attacks.”
The financial impact of losing animals can be devastating for a farmer and for both the victim and the rural unit dealing with these offences can be deeply disturbing.
“If you hear the words ‘sheep worrying’ or ‘livestock attack’ it doesn’t really portray the brutality of the offence,” says Rob.
“We find sheep alive but with their faces missing, with limbs missing or their innards hanging out. The sheep can be completely brutalised over a matter of hours and the farmer is left both traumatised by the incident and suffering from the financial impact.
“We have to attend and deal with it too which can be pretty horrific and the impact across the board is just huge – remember the dog owner could end up going to court and having their dog destroyed by a court order. At the end of the day the whole incident can be really horrific.”
So strongly does Rob feel about the issue he is now pushing for the law around the crime to be changed and updated to allow for better policing.
“We keep really detailed stats here in North Wales and around four years ago we began exposing it as a real problem.
“On many occasions it had gone unreported because farmers had lost a lot of faith in the policing of some rural offences.
“Since then we’ve tried education and firm enforcement and we’ve produced an online documentary but we’ve found that even with this hard work we’re doing, the offences are not reducing in number which is why we’re in Parliament at the moment, but it’s a huge task trying to change British law when it has been embedded for 60 years.
“I’ve been down twice now to present our findings to a select committee of MPs and we have four other forces involved who are looking at their statistics and finding the same things as us.
“It’s a big problem and though I don’t think we’ll ever get it down to zero I’m hopeful we can make a big difference for everyone involved.”
The logging of crimes to try and spot patterns is crucial to the team’s success and every 24 hours the unit enters all of the data they have dealt with during that day, which has built up into a vast database from which to search.
“Nationally, farmers have not had the reassurance they deserve which is why our team has been working hard to rebuild bridges,” says Rob.
“If farmers don’t report these crimes we don’t know they’ve happened so the more we can paint a picture of a trend the more we can do about it.
“In the past it just wasn’t recorded because the police didn’t have a duty to record livestock attacks but here in North Wales we do and other forces are now following us.
“Rural crime is very seasonal – in the run up to Christmas you often see criminals after money so you see a rise in opportunistic theft from farms.
“With wildlife we see a lot of illegal hunting at this time of year including fox hunting and hare coursing.
“We see poaching of deer too because it is just past the breeding season and also because people are after venison for Christmas.
“Most of our sheep thefts happen around now as it is the time farmers are gathering their flocks and they realise their numbers are down. In the New Year and spring we see a lot of people stealing birds’ eggs.”
While wildlife-related crime can range from incidents of birds of prey being poisoned and poaching to badger baiting and even the ivory trade, Rob is keen to stress that traditional crimes like burglary remain an absolute priority.
“A lot of criminals will not just visit a farm as a one off,” he warns.
“They’ll usually visit the day before and it will be a stupid excuse like someone selling batteries or asking for directions.
“By the time they’ve left they’ve seen the weak points or if there’s any quad bikes around.
“They can weigh up a lot in a short time so we always say try and take a note of a registration just in case and if it is safe to do so take a photo of the car with your phone.
“If you’re confident you can tell the person you will be doing this – they’re opportunists and they’ll take what they can.”
l You can contact the Rural Crime Team by phoning 101 or follow them on Twitter @NWPRuralCrime