Farmers feel forgotten - I'm voting to tackle rural crime and support the countryside

Hannah Cains, 33, wants to see a more joined-up approach to tackling rural crime through a cross-agency national rural crime taskforce.

As part of its election coverage, Yahoo News is speaking to voters around the country on the issues that will sway their vote. Read more from our election 'Your Voice' series here as we get closer to polling day on 4 July.

Hannah Cains wants a government that will tackle rural crime. (image supplied)
Hannah Cains wants a government that will tackle rural crime. (image supplied)

When most people think of soaring crime figures, they might envision gang warfare, knife crime or burglaries. But rural crime is sweeping the nation and Hannah Cains, 33, and her family have been victims.

In March last year, the mum-of-two who manages a 150-acre sheep farm with her husband, found two of their sheep had been shot dead in a random attack.

“It felt unsettling and scary to think someone had been walking around our property with a gun,” she says. “It was the second time we have been victims of countryside crime and we worry it won’t be the last.”

Hannah and husband Scott, 35, who have more than 500 sheep on their farm in Claverley, Shropshire, also had a quad bike and thousands of pounds worth of tools stolen from them in 2022. It was one of three planned raids on farms in their area that night.

Rural crime is ‘substantially increasing’, according to the National Farmers Union insurance company (NFU Mutual), with quadbike theft rising by 34% and livestock theft by more than 8%. NFU Mutual says that there is also increasing evidence of organised crime gangs operating in rural areas.

“As farmers we are in a unique position because crimes against our business are also happening at our homes, leaving us feeling unsafe.” says Cains. “And we can’t just give up – the country is relying on farmers like us to supply food.”

As well as experiencing rural crime first-hand, Cains sees other farmers affected by it through her job as an insurance agent. She says: “There have been thefts of machinery and livestock, fly-tipping and hare coursing. Some people have had their animals butchered in the fields and then the meat taken away.”

Cains says that how parties pledge to tackle rural crime will have a bearing on how she votes on 4 July.

The National Farmer’s Union is urging all political parties to better fund rural policing, as unlike densely populated urban areas rural forces cannot benefit from economies of scale and often have a bigger geographical area to cover.

It also wants to see a more joined-up approach to tackling rural crime through a cross-agency national rural crime taskforce.

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So far, Labour is the only party that has committed to ‘a consistent and coordinated response to rural crime across government and police forces’. It has also promised farmers it will promote the highest standards in food imports.

But the party falls short in other areas that are important for the farming community, failing to commit to a protected UK agriculture budget of £1bn.

NFU president Tom Bradshaw said: “This isn’t just ‘money for farmers’, it’s the funding which helps the sector transition away from the old EU system, allows farm businesses to invest for the future and makes governments’ aims around sustainable food production, food security, the environment and net zero possible.

“It’s funding to help underpin the UK’s largest manufacturing sector – food and drink – which contributes more than £128bn to the national economy and provides jobs for four million people.”

Labour was also criticised by the NFU for describing badger culling, a cause of the spread of bovine TB, in its policies as ‘inefficient’. The union said this failed to acknowledge the efforts of the farming community to reduce the disease.

Cains says she has traditionally voted Conservative but “for the first time as a voter I am looking thoroughly into all the parties’ policies. I am really thinking how it will affect the farming world”.

She is concerned that rural crime, in particular fly-tipping, may increase. In her area, cash-strapped councils are planning on closing local recycling centres.

When household or garden waste is dumped on farmers’ land it means they either spend time and money clearing it themselves or have to claim on their insurance – which in turn drives up the cost of premiums.

Cains says farmers are being hit by many other issues too. The Ukraine war and sanctions on Russia, have caused the cost of fertilisers to soar, while the end of free movement because of Brexit has contributed to agricultural labour shortages.

Plus, there has been a drop in direct payments for farming as these are being phased out in exchange for incentives for environmental schemes. There are also challenges around animal welfare standards and environmental protections when trading with other countries.

While import deals have been struck with countries like Australia and New Zealand, Cains says this has resulted in an ‘unfair playing field’ for those selling British meat. “In the UK, we have high standards for our meat which means our production costs are higher,” she explains.

“Other countries don’t have to abide by these rules so imported meat can be sold for cheaper. British meat is of superior quality but in a cost-of-living crisis the average person making a decision about cost might choose meat from abroad. This is hitting British farmers.”

All three main political parties have pledged to support British food producers by increasing public sector sourcing from British farms.

The Conservatives and Labour have promised to source at least 50% of public- sector food locally or to higher environmental standards. But when it comes to other ‘asks’ from the NFU, the offering from the different political parties is a ‘mixed bag’.

The Tories have pledged to hold an annual food summit at Number 10 to ensure food security is high on the political agenda and a transition to a new environmental scheme to ensure profitable food production.

The Liberal Democrats have promised to establish minimum standards to promote a fair and functioning supply chain, and set out plans to invest in agricultural technology and innovation centres.

Cains is still undecided on her vote. She thinks the pandemic has harmed the Conservatives, saying “whichever party was in power would have found it difficult and there would have been things it could have done better”.

She is also keen that whichever party comes into power needs to “recognise the importance of hard work”. She feels this value has been lost and people aren’t incentivised or rewarded for working hard because of an overriding belief that everyone should be equal.

What Cains is certain about is that any future government needs to protect and support farmers. "Sometimes farmers feel forgotten, but without us there is no food," she says.

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