Christmas rustlers

When trees and turkeys start to go AWOL, the festive spirit flags.
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The Independent Online
They come by night, carefully negotiating a variety of alarm systems - from trip wires to guard dogs and geese. Armed with axes, they go about their business: deftly piling their raided booty into trucks before making their furtive getaway. They are the Christmas tree rustlers.

The last full moon before Christmas was 7 December and Christmas tree growers and garden centres across the land braced themselves. "They like the moonlight, you see," Surrey grower Peter Smith explains. "It means they don't need to bring torches or alert anyone by working by the light of a van."

Mr Smith has suffered at the hands of rustlers. In 1993 he lost 200 trees in one night. He has since invested in a hi-tech security system with sensors that detect movement around his trees; these are linked to an alarm in his house and at the local police station.

So far, Mr Smith's precautions have not been wasted, although they are anything but foolproof. Itinerant deer can trip the alarms and last year a passing policeman, eager to check that nothing was awry, unwittingly triggered a sensor, prompting the speedy arrival of two colleagues from the local nick. But mishaps like this are a small price to pay, Mr Smith says: at pounds 10-pounds 15 a tree, the loss of a couple of hundred can severely dent his profit.

Rustlers come in all shapes and sizes - from the occasional chancer to the gang selling knocked-off trees to market traders and small shops. The recovery of stolen goods is nigh on impossible. And prosecution is tricky - unless the thieves are caught red-handed.

Even if they are caught, they are lightly treated, says Mr Smith: "I don't think magistrates take it very seriously." One perpetrator caught on his land was arrested after being spotted in the act: a passing policeman immobilised the rustler's van and arrested him. The thief went to court and was bound over not to steal another tree for 12 months. "It's hardly a disincentive," Mr Smith laments.

Tony Richardson, secretary of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, agrees it is a problem. And a costly one at that. Around 5.25 million trees - worth some pounds 50m - are sold in the UK each year. Demand remains constant, which makes rustling a profitable venture when supply is short - as is now the case. "This year's heatwave hit young trees planted in the spring," Mr Richardson explains. Because of this, a number of growers are preparing for the worst.

And they are not alone. Rustlers also have their eye on this year's turkeys. The fine summer has a lot to answer for, says Paul Cooper, of the National Farmers' Union's south-west division: "The heat severely reduced turkeys' fertility and the cost of feed has shot up."

Already there has been an attempted pre-Christmas turkey raid in Somerset. And last week the NFU put out the agricultural equivalent of a police "all points bulletin" - urging its members to be extra vigilant. "The professional gangs are always on the lookout, wherever there's a shortage in supply," says Mr Cooper.

In Norfolk, turkey thefts were reported to the local police in March, July, September and November. Now the NFU is taking precautions of its own: encouraging the setting up of local "Farm Watches" - networks of eagle-eyed farmers - and even "Turkey Watch" patrols in the run-up to Christmas.

Turkey farmers are being encouraged to take their own security precautions: electric fences, light and heat sensors, dogs, noisy geese - even private security guards are being employed. "It's become a regular hazard - especially in more remote areas where barns are not overlooked," says Philippa Kelly, who runs a 10,000-head turkey farm in Devon.

Ms Kelly has invested in a heat sensor-based warning system linked to the telephone in her house. But still the raids continue. On one occasion, baby birds were attacked - their throats cut before being stolen. "They weren't even ready for Christmas, they were younger birds intended for the next Easter," she says. "It's not just the money: we take care to obey the regulations and we do care if our animals are hurt."

Although tagging has been tried both for stolen birds and trees, it has had only limited success. "The problem is once someone has bought one, if they realise it's been stolen they're unlikely to report it as they'd have been buying stolen goods," says Mr Smith.

Which makes turkey rustling the perfect crime - especially once the evidence has been eaten.