EVERY year, rural crime costs millions of pounds and causes untold anxiety across the UK. In Scotland, where over 95 per cent of the country is designated ‘rural’, the problem is especially pronounced. Given the choice, its little surprise that criminals would prefer to operate in the countryside and woodlands, where there are fewer CCTV cameras, fewer witnesses, plenty of money to be made and little chance of being caught.

Three years ago, the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime (SPARC) was established, bringing together 16 partners – including Police Scotland, Forestry and Land Scotland, and Confor – to combat the rising wave of criminal activity.
Before joining SPARC, Inspector Alan Dron, Police Scotland national rural crime co-ordinator, was involved in tackling serious organised crime, which has proved to be valuable preparation.

“There are seven priorities for SPARC,” he said. “Of those, machinery and vehicle theft is a vital strand, as is fuel theft, and both of those have a big impact on forestry. What we already know is a lot of this activity is linked to organised criminality. It’s not just a couple of guys walking by, cutting a padlock, then meandering through the woodland. It’s on a much larger scale than people might appreciate. In a lot of cases, it will be someone within the industry who’s doing it. We need to root out these guys to make sure the legitimate ones are thriving.”

Jamie Farquhar, Confor’s national manager for Scotland, said: “SPARC is a very welcome initiative, and not only from the forestry angle. What it’s done is galvanise the individual divisions to dedicate resources to the issue. We know from experience that, in the past, it’s not always been easy to engage the police, initially, with rural problems. So SPARC serves everyone extremely well.”

Of the 16 organisations that make up SPARC, seven have been charged with spearheading efforts against specific types of crime. Forestry and Land Scotland has responsibility for leading efforts relating to fuel theft from domestic and commercial sites. Given the scale of the problem, that’s no easy task.

“A lot of contractors now accept fuel theft as part of life,” said Colin Peacock, senior programme manager, central region, for Forestry and Land Scotland.

“The price of a job will often include the cost of fuel being stolen and associated damage. Some contractors don’t even bother locking the fuel bowser because they know it will just get damaged and cost them more money.

“What we’ve realised is it’s not just a couple of chancers. Often the thieves are able to start up the machine to move the fuel bowser closer to the road, so it’s more accessible. It’s someone who knows their way around the machines and has some knowledge of where people are working.

“However, there is some technology coming through that’s not so common in the industry yet, but we’d like to encourage people to think about it in the coming months.”

A number of SPARC’s pilot schemes have already seen some success, though they haven’t been broadly publicised. One programme of activity in Galloway was established following a violent assault on a contractor, who disturbed thieves while they were stealing fuel from his site. With multiple agencies motivated to improve security, SPARC set up Galloway Forest Watch, drawing all parties together to pool their resources and knowledge.

“One thing they realised was there were quite a lot of unauthorised vehicles in the woods,” said Colin. “Contractors and forestry workers were given signs to put in the windows of their vehicles to show they were legitimate. If anyone saw a vehicle without a sign, they were to take the registration and let the police know. And, importantly, the police were following it up.” 

Alan said: “If you just do simple things, it’s amazing how well they can work. If two houses are sitting empty, but one has the light on, which one is the criminal going to go to? That kind of tactic will work anywhere. If there’s signage up, CCTV in the area, people taking notice of who’s coming and going, that will allow us to fight back. There will always be a hardcore element committing crime no matter what, but a fair chunk of it will be reduced or moved on.”

Colin highlighted the example of a broken barrier that someone made the effort to repair on the same day it was reported. A couple of days later, a stolen tractor was uncovered in nearby trees.

“We think the tractor was stolen and hidden in the woods to be picked up later,” he said. “Because we had repaired the barrier, they couldn’t retrieve it.”

Not every issue SPARC has taken on has related to organised crime. One recent incident, in West Dumbartonshire, saw forces unite to combat anti-social behaviour at Cochno Hill. In what was becoming an annual tradition, around 200 drunken youths descended on the hillside looking to cause trouble, but were safely rounded up and sent home by police.

“Last year we were unprepared for it and they caused havoc,” said Colin. “This year, we were prepared and as soon as they began to arrive the police came to get them.

“The antisocial behaviour aspect of forestry crime can have a big impact. Trying to stop things like fly-tipping, underage drinking, dropping litter and setting fires can be quite difficult, but I think it’s only by working together that we have any chance.”

Whether the issue is fuel and machinery theft, timber theft or antisocial behaviour, Alan believes that sharing knowledge is the key to tackling it.

“Take Cochno,” he said. “In previous years, we wouldn’t have known youths were descending on that area. Through local people sharing that knowledge with us, we were able to coordinate an operation that had really good results. On the other side, if a machine is marked, as soon as we know it’s stolen, we can get it tracked. Often, if we don’t know within 24 hours that a machine’s been stolen, it’s out of the country or dismantled. If we don’t know about a crime taking place, there’s not much we can do. And studies show that only a third of rural crime is reported, while two thirds isn’t.”

Colin said: “We’ve found that contractors, merchants, even our own guys aren’t always reporting crimes. We need to encourage more reporting, especially by contractors. I think, in the past, they might have reported something and nothing’s been done. We need to give them reassurance that we are taking it seriously.”

SPARC may be a Scottish body, but the problems it aims to address are rife across the UK, which begs the question of whether other regions could follow its example.

“I’m quite sure that NFU and the CLA are probably a little jealous of what has happened up here,” said Jamie. “Things like this are quite often easier to organise in Scotland. We are just that bit smaller geographically, fewer people involved, and it’s much easier to get galvanised action involving different sectors of the community.”

Alan said: “Wales are looking into it, Northumbria is starting to form its own group. We already do a lot of cross-border stuff. It’s in its infancy, but it’s really starting to move forward. It will take time, but the good news is we’re here to stay and we’ll only get stronger.”