Country Matters: On guard, and staying that way

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The Independent Online
AT 2.30 one afternoon the telephone rang in the house at the top of our hill. When the farmer's wife picked up the receiver, the line went dead, but she thought nothing of it. Soon afterwards she walked up to the barn, not much more than 100 yards away, to help her husband and son with the laborious job of sorting potatoes.

An hour later, she came back to make a cup of tea, pausing on the way to pick up some tin cans from the ashes of a bonfire. At the back door she dropped the cans into the dustbin, and a second later became aware that there was someone else in her house. As she entered the lobby, an intruder hurtled out of the front door on the other side of the building, slipped through a gap at the end of the wall and ran off.

The police arrived with commendable speed. Their tracker dog immediately picked up a line - through a spinney, across a road, and into the woods on the side of the valley. For more than two miles the dog clung to the scent, but then it lost the trail.

So the intruder got away with a useful amount of cash, a fine old watch, and a few pieces of jewellery, all family heirlooms, treasured more for their sentimental associations than for their intrinsic value. For the owners, the break-in was devastating: they were unnerved by the feeling that they had been watched and targeted - almost certainly another telephone call had come, and, when it had gone unanswered, the raiders had struck.

Since the event, the family has hardly dared leave the house empty, even for a few minutes. For the police, it was merely one more ripple in the swelling tide of rural crime.

Farms, which are by nature scattered and isolated, are particularly prone to theft, and over the past few months cries of outrage have been rising from every corner of the country at the ever-increasing audacity of the villains. Nothing seems safe: tractors, stock trailers, horse- boxes, chainsaws, gates - and cattle, sheep and poultry - have been disappearing like smoke. Yet what now seem to be at greatest risk are the roofs of outlying barns and houses.

From South Wales to Cumbria, slates and stone tiles are being stolen in such quantities that the Country Landowners Association has launched a campaign urging its 49,000 members to be on their guard. Some buildings have been plundered two, three, or even four times. Five miles west of Cardiff, a farmhouse in the middle of renovation recently lost its entire roof during a single night, and within 24 hours 600 more slates vanished from a barn close by.

Traditional roofing materials, though heavy, are well worth stealing. A square of second-hand Cotswold stone tiles, covering an area 10ft by 10ft, costs pounds 650 (plus VAT) from a reclamation yard, and new Welsh slates, which measure up to 20in by 10in, are pounds 3 apiece.

Paradoxically, the problem is being exacerbated by the insistence of planning authorities - laudable in itself - that buildings in rural areas should be roofed, or re-roofed, with traditional materials. Because there is a countrywide shortage of good stone and slate, a black market in these materials flourishes, and few questions are ever asked about provenance.

The CLA fears that vandalism on the scale now rampant will have a damaging effect on the appearance of the countryside. With insurance companies already refusing to pay out for the second or third time, some buildings will be abandoned, as too expensive to repair, and others will be re-roofed with artificial tiles or slates, even with prefabricated sheets of asbestos or galvanised iron.

The difficulties of protecting isolated barns are formidable. No one has yet found a satisfactory way of marking stone or slate so that stolen tiles can be recognised if they come onto the market, and it is impossible to set up an electronic alarm system on any building which houses cattle.

Empty barns, on the other hand, can be alarmed, and farmers are beginning to instal battery-driven systems which make no sound on the site, but send radio signals back to base.

Many other defensive measures are already standard. When hanging a new gate, most farmers now set the top hinge upside-down, so that the whole gate cannot be lifted clear. More and more gates are secured by heavy chains and padlocks. Outhouses have become strong-rooms, with steel doors and grilles over the windows, for the protection of chainsaws and other power tools.

At night, security lights frequently blaze on, even if the intruder is only a fox or a cat. Numerous farm watch schemes have been set up, with participants on the alert for strange people or vehicles.

All this, of course, takes time and money. To be constantly locking and unlocking gates or doors adds greatly to the burden of a working day. It is hardly surprising that when it comes to defending property, farmers, who have strong territorial instincts, feel increasingly inclined to take the law into their own hands - especially when they know that the police are desperately over-stretched, and cannot cover the ground adequately.

Many country people hanker after the good old days, when more robust methods prevailed. One chartered surveyor, harassed by the loss of slates, wistfully quoted a 19th-century incident in Herefordshire, when a landowner heard a disturbance in the night and loosed his two mastiffs to deal with it. In the morning a man was found dead in the grounds, with his throat torn out; and when the case came up in court, the magistrate congratulated the landowner on the vigilance with which he had guarded his property.

Things have changed a bit since then - as witness the burglary at our neighbours' house. It was obvious that if the tracker dog could have been let go, it would have nailed the fugitive in a few minutes - but no: the law required that the dog be kept on its leash, in case it sank its teeth into the criminal, and so the man escaped.

I do not blame people for wanting a return to more forthright measures. If it were known, for instance, that I had, buried about the approaches to my farm buildings, traps of the kind which clamp a man's leg in their jagged jaws, I feel sure that I should receive very few nocturnal visitors. If I made a habit of wiring up the farmyard gates and door handles to the electric mains, and switching on the power at dusk, that, too, would give potential thieves pause, if not cardiac arrest.

Oddly enough, the police do not recommend either tactic - and in fact they are extremely cautious when giving advice about what one may or may not do to protect one's property. Am I allowed to set booby traps? Not a good idea, a friendly constable told me - and certainly I must not rig up any device which is liable to cause injury.

What about firing a shot as a frightener? All right if I fire it into the air. In general, I may use as much force as is necessary to defend my person if physically attacked - but the line between defence and offence is perilously hard to strike, and official advice is always to avoid physical confrontation if possible.

No doubt that is sensible. All the same, I sleep the more easily for knowing that my alarm systems are activated and that I have a loaded weapon handy.