Watch out, there's a thief with a trowel about

Green and light fingers are a fearsome combination. Michael Leapman and Georgie Bevan on soaring garden crime
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The Independent Online
A Kent man was charged last week with stealing nearly 800 cherry trees from Lord Kingsdown, a former governor of the Bank of England. It is not suggested the suspect dug them up one by one - but given the epidemic of exotic garden thefts, the idea is not as outrageous as it seems.

At the start of the gardening season, the busiest time of year for horticultural crime, police have this message for gardeners: "Lock up your dahlias."

Last year, more than a million gardens were attacked by thieves. According to PC David Sotiris, a crime prevention officer in Epsom, Surrey, today's burglars are taking the usual jewellery, antiques and electrical equipment, then heading for their victim's garden. "Nowadays they're making off with expensive shrubs and plants, hanging baskets, occasionally whole lawns and even trees," he says. "Then there are the garden statues, the lawnmowers and the koi carp from the fish ponds. All this can fetch hundreds of pounds on the black market and, unlike cars and personal belongings they are completely untraceable. I mean who's going to recognise one patch of grass from the next?"

The combination of green and light fingers is a potent one, and thieves have pulled off some audacious coups. Prize specimens have been carefully dug from beds, leaving lesser plants undisturbed. A Manchester man woke to find that his new lawn, lovingly laid only days earlier, had been rolled up and carted off overnight.

Thieves show amazing ingenuity. A Sussex gardener who collects camellias was surprised when one rare specimen, formerly bursting with health, began to wilt. He found that someone had cut it in two, stolen the roots and stuck the stem back.

The raiders do not take any old plant: they know what they want. One broke through twofences and into a hothouse, to make off with a single Michelia Doltsopa. Nearby, an enthusiast lost four pots of rare petunias.

A South Coast man was immensely proud of his pounds 1,000 Honda lawnmower and fitted reputedly thief-proof locks and bolts to its shed. They proved no match for a burglar's jemmy and, early last spring, the mower went missing. A few weeks ago the thief returned, reasoning that by now the Honda would have been replaced. But the once-bitten victim had moved the new machine to a cellar and secured it with heavy chains.

In Kent, there has been a spate of heavy-mower thefts. "It looks like an organised operation," said a police spokeswoman. "We think they are being stolen to order. All we can do is urge people to keep their sheds well locked." No arrest has been made, but police will be looking for those tell-tale stripes on front lawns now the mowing season has begun.

The magazine Horticulture Week publishes regular lists of stolen garden machinery. The Historic Houses Association does the same for garden statuary.

Colin Sanders, who owns a 1625 manor house north of Oxford, lost several statues in two successive raids. The first time the thieves took only a few modern pieces. A few weeks later they returned and stole two Victorian bronzes, a metal dragon and - the apple of his eye - a pair of boxing hares sculpted specially for him and worth pounds 12,000.

"The police said they probably went out of the country straight away," he said. "I open my garden to the public occasionally and the thieves probably took a picture of them, touted it around and came back when they found a buyer. A neighbour had everything taken from his garden and some people round here say they won't open theirs to visitors now, for that reason."

Two years ago the fine National Trust garden at Wallington, Northumberland, lost one of a set of valuable 18th-century lead statues, hacked away from its plinth on the terrace. The Trust has put the remaining statues into secure storage.

Garden crimes are especially hard to solve because they seldom involve a break-in, just a man with a van at dead of night. Last year the Metropolitan Police took a stand at the Hampton Court flower show urging people to design their gardens with an eye to deterring intruders, by planting thorny roses and holly just inside the walls and fences.

Allotments are particularly vulnerable. Recurrent stories of prize leeks being dug up on the eve of shows in the North-east are not all urban myths. Marauders break into sheds and steal tools, which turn up at car- boot sales. One Kent allotment society is organising all-night patrols.

Not all such crimes are committed by professionals. A few years ago two Londoners dug up a yucca from a neighbour's garden. They were caught as they tried to burn it, explaining they found it unbearably ugly.

People who open their gardens to the public expect to lose hundreds of pounds' worth of plants as visitors arrive secreting miniature trowels and plastic bags. One Surrey enthusiast bought a collection of mountain ash trees, carefully placing a label on each. In successive visits over the summer, someone removed almost all the labels.

They were sent back by an apologetic parent, whose small son had hoarded them in his bedroom. If the lad has already decided on a life of garden crime the low arrest rate means it could be a smart career choice.