'This wasn’t an opportunist theft, they came prepared.”

These are the words of a Dorset beef and sheep farmer whose business was targeted by thieves who stole thousands of pounds worth of equipment.

Jake Hancock of Tincleton-based Wessex Conservation Grazing spoke as it was revealed the cost of rural crime in Dorset has risen to £900,000 as criminal gangs target farm machinery and livestock.

The cost for last year – an increase of more than 28 per cent from 2018 – is revealed in the 2020 Rural Crime Report by the insurer NFU Mutual.

And while there have been some reductions in crime under lockdown, there are concerns that rural theft is set to escalate as the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic bites.

Wessex Conservation Grazing has a breeding herd of pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle and a breeding flock of Exlana sheep.

It also provides nature conservation grazing and land management services across 9,000 acres of Dorset countryside.

In June, Mr Hancock had a flatbed tri-axel trailer, a cattle crush and two sets of scales stolen from the farm. The trailer was locked and behind a gate with a high security padlock.

He said: “This is the first time we have had anything stolen in 14 years running Wessex Grazing, so it was a real shock. Thousands of pounds worth of equipment was gone overnight.

“The most worrying thing for us is that they must have been here before to check out the farm as they’d have needed specialist equipment to remove our machinery. This wasn’t an opportunist theft, they came prepared.”

The theft of agricultural machinery is often carried out by organised gangs and not only has a financial impact on farmers, but can greatly affect their farming practice.

For the second year running, it is said the sharp rise in rural crime is being driven by organised criminal gangs targeting high-value tractors, quad bikes and other farm vehicles.

Livestock theft also increased in 2019 – organised gangs taking large numbers of sheep, which are thought to enter the food chain illegally, are driving the increase.

Matt Uren, NFU Mutual Agent in Dorchester, said: “Rural crime is like a wave as organised criminality spreads through our villages, farms and rural towns. We continue to work hard to stem the tide and are warning rural communities and helping with prevention advice, as there are concerns for the months ahead as the economic impact of coronavirus bites.

“There’s no doubt that organised criminal gangs are targeting our countryside again and these figures would be much higher if it weren’t for specialist teams in police forces such as the Dorset Rural Crime Team, and improved farm security measures such as trackers for tractors and quads.”

Speaking about crime under coronavirus, Mr Uren said: “Our provisional theft claims data for the first half of 2020 indicates that, while rural theft fell overall during the early part of pandemic lockdown, we’ve seen a number of national trends including a spike in livestock rustling in April and the targeting of GPS equipment.

“As well as the financial cost, there’s a serious effect on the mental well-being of people living in rural and often isolated areas. There are fears that the impact will be felt harder this year as farmers have been working flat-out to feed the nation and many rural communities have been put under additional pressure by the challenges brought by Covid-19.”

NFU Mutual works closely with Dorset Police and last autumn launched an anti-cold calling campaign to protect farmers from would-be criminals who turn up at farms to stake out whether there is anything worth stealing, and has also supported the Dorset Police tractor.

This year NFU Mutual invested £430,000 nationally to tackle rural crime, including a police UK-wide agricultural vehicle crime tracking and recovery unit. The National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service (NaVCIS) co-ordinates farm machinery theft intelligence between NFU Mutual, police forces, Border Force and Interpol. The insurer has also provided funding for the welfare and shelter of stolen farm animals as police investigate and track down their owners.