A few weeks ago, I joined Chief Constable Alec Wood and representatives of Cambridgeshire Constabulary at Countryside Watch’s annual general meeting.
It was a great opportunity for the force to update members of the community on what they are doing to tackle rural crime.
Rural crime typically includes problems associated with the countryside such as hare coursing, poaching, equine crime, theft of farm equipment and fox hunting.
Cambridgeshire has a varied urban and rural landscape and for those living in the countryside, often in isolated areas, the consequences of this type of criminality can be hugely impactful, leading to undermining feelings of personal safety.
Fortunately, we are one of the few force areas that has a dedicated team in place to combat rural crime. I am proud of the work done by the Rural Crime Action Team (RCAT), set up in 2016 as a direct response to community concerns and have shadowed some of the team’s shifts myself to better understand the sort of issues they deal with.
The RCAT’s role is to combat hare coursing and poaching, as well as using specialist knowledge to deal with other aspects of rural crime including plant and tractor theft, heritage crime, arson, wildlife crime and illegal raves. An important part of RCAT’s role is also to raise awareness of what people living in rural communities can do to keep themselves safe.
I grew up on a farm myself, and while I look back nostalgically as the tractors come out and crops begin to grow, many criminals will look upon the changing season as an opportunity for crime.
With large equipment often left in fields overnight, there is a risk of theft or tampering by opportunists. Farmer’s need to make sure that all large pieces of equipment are adequately marked to increase the probability of recovery if they are stolen, particularly vehicles and fuel storage units, which are prime targets for diesel theft.
Rural crime cannot be tackled in isolation, and I am very supportive of a partnership approach to confront this kind of crime. I continue to support Countryside Watch and have awarded them £10,000 to fund target hardening measures and equipment for both their members and the general public.
I am highly also supportive of ongoing cross border cooperation which has led to arrests in surrounding areas.
I want to reassure the rural community that, while hare coursing season may be coming to a close, I will not be any less engaged in tackling this problem. It is not simply the illegal trespass and blood sport to which many people object. Hare coursers often exhibit threatening and intimidating behaviour, even driving dangerously at high speed through towns and villages. Crops and equipment can be destroyed, costing farmers thousands of pounds.
But, while the constabulary is making use of all the legal powers at its disposal, the law of the land falls short.
Most offenders are prosecuted under the 1831 Gaming Act, which has only limited powers and typically attracts fines below £300 that are often vastly outweighed by the money set aside by perpetrators to gamble with. Enacted at a time before automobiles had been invented, not only is the act an insufficient deterrent, but makes a mockery of the hours the police have spent bringing these cases to court, offering no justice to victims.
I have written to our local MPs, who have supported me in calling for tougher sentencing, and I am now calling on local councillors, groups and members of the public to make their support known. While the season may be coming to an end, we must ensure that hare coursers know we do not rest, and while the RCAT continue their efforts on the frontline, I will continue to fight for better recognition of this problem and a solution which benefits not just residents of Cambridgeshire but rural communities across the country.