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The innocent and the guilty: which is which in rural crime?

Friday 01 August 2003

Our countryside commentator John Sheard asks if the notorious case of Tony Martin will help focus attention on the long overlooked problem of rural crime

TENS of thousands of country folk from all over Britain will be in Yorkshire over this weekend attending the CLA's Game Fair at Harewood House, the biggest event of its type in the whole of Europe.

Daily Mirror 29-07-03

But, I wager, the main topic of conversation will not be about riding, fishing, shooting or farming, not even about fox hunting. One name will be on every visitors' lips: Tony Martin, a farmer who is not famous - or rather, infamous - for his agricultural skills.

No, Martin is the Norfolk farmer who, tired of being burgled for the umpteenth time by town-based professional thieves, loosed off with a shotgun into the dark night and - much to his surprise, he claims - killed a 16-year-old burglar.

First convicted of murder, later reduced to manslaughter on appeal, Martin was released from jail this week after being forced to serve the full two-thirds of his five year sentence, the absolute maximum for someone who had not broken any prison rules whilst inside.

Meanwhile, the man who took the dead youth on the crime spree, Brendan Fearon, a career criminal with no less than 37 previous convictions, was released early from a totally unconnected prison sentence for selling heroin.

The injustice of these two events has caused a national outcry. The down-market Daily Mirror bought Martin's story for an alleged five-figure fee - and is now being investigated itself by the Press Complaints Commission for paying off a "criminal."

All this has been well reported. It was even used as the Thought for the Day topic on Radio Four's Today programme by a Sikh cleric. But the question I want to ask on behalf of all country folk is: will the row over this case make us and our property any safer as we lie worrying in our beds of a night?

The fact of the matter is that the surge in rural crime has been underway for some 15 years now - but, as far as I can remember, this is the first time that it has ever become a topic for national debate.

It has been known for a decade or more than urban crime-prevention schemes like Neighbourhood Watch have been driving criminals into the countryside. There, the pickings are easy.

I have a modest holiday home where I go fishing in Cumbria. It has been burgled twice. That is not all that unusual except that one lot of thieves, who were caught, came from Sunderland. The others, suspected but never prosecuted, came from Merseyside. Yet they found my little place in a field in the middle of nowhere.

However, that was a 50% success rate for the peelers. Ten days ago, some North Yorkshire crime figures were leaked to the Press and, as far as I could see (these statistics are always made almost impossible to understand) the chances of being caught for this are less than 10%.

And this from a police force which has just put its demands on the local taxpayers by over 70%. Most of that, it is not explained, will go to pay for index linked pensions for bobbies, many of whom were allowed to retire early on ill-health grounds. North Yorkshire, it seems, is a bad place for bad backs and stress for the boys in blue.

Recently, a friend of mine phoned the police when she had spotted two youths behaving suspiciously late at night outside a house near Aireville Park in Skipton. When the phone was finally answered after a long delay, the bobby at the other end was in Whitby. He barely knew where Skipton was, never mind Aireville Park.

In the meantime, thieves are having a field day, carting off quad bikes, horse tack, farm machinery and even livestock. In Airedale, gangs of youths from Bradford and Keighley are beating drivers with baseball bats in order to steal their cars,

Any farmer or country dweller who faces such gang alone and in the middle of the night knows that it will take at least half an hour, even an hour, before the police get there. Should he take action to protect himself or his family, he is likely to end up in jail for longer than the criminal.

The law has long been an ass. Now, for rural folk, it is a quivering, cowering, whimpering wimp. It costs a fortune and gives little in return. We can only hope that the Tony Martin case will kick-start some positive action. If not, it could be time for us to take up guns, not against thieves, but against the politicians who are failing in their first and foremost duty: to keep the Queen's peace.


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