When George Orwell tried to define Englishness in his 1941 essay “England Your England”, written under the sound of Nazi bombers, he resorted to a list of images: “The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning…”
What images define the British countryside in 2023? Closed pubs; a new estate of boxy, pricey houses; the packed waiting room at the one doctor’s surgery within 20 miles; farmers at kitchen tables reading trolling tweets by vegans and rewilders; polluted rivers; empty beer cans beside bus stops where the bus now longer stops; the red-brick cottage which working people once rented, but which has now been turned into an Airbnb; the Ocado van delivering supplies to the second-homers; and, if you look closely, the shadowy figures breaking into farmyards before roaring off into the night in a Merc Sprinter van.
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Crime in the countryside often sounds like a bit of a laugh: too much underage cider with Rosie down The Crown, or ruddy-faced rogues off The Archers rustling a few sheep. But there’s a truth behind the clichés. Livestock theft has always been a problem in the sticks, although it isn’t just rural rascals nicking cows and sheep these days — it’s organised crime. An estimated £2.4 million worth of livestock was stolen in 2021, and this figure is increasing as the cost-of-living crisis bites, with the stolen animals going to back-street butchers. It is believed that the meat is then sold door to door by criminals posing as ethical organic meat suppliers.
Then there is the killing of sheep by pet-illiterate pandemic dog buyers (cost to farmers: £1.5 million in 2021), industrial fly-tipping, trespassing, fuel siphoning, and the nicking of £2.6 million worth of Land Rover Defenders for parts in 2021. There’s the hare coursing, the “liberation” of lambs by vegan activists, and the theft of farm quad bikes, tractors, machinery and technical equipment by roving overseas gangs. Especially sought-after are the pricey Global Positioning Units (GPS) on modern tractors and combine harvesters, which can cost up to £20,000 each.
There has long been a black market in agricultural kit destined for Eastern Europe, but according to the National Rural Crime Unit (NRCU), the main outlet for the burgled goods is now Russia. Western sanctions following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine have left the Russian bread-basket thirsty for stolen farm machinery. The National Farmers Union, the main rural insurer, believes that the cost of GPS theft doubled to more than £500,000 in the first four months of 2023, compared with the same period last year. While gangs have targeted the arable farms of eastern England for several years, they now operate up and down the country; in the last week of May, GPS units were stolen from farms from Wiltshire up to the Scottish Borders. In many instances, the farms were “cased” or surveilled by drones.
The problem is only getting worse. In the decade up to 2021, crime rates rose nearly three times faster in rural towns and villages across England and Wales than in the rest of the country. In the first quarter of 2022 alone, the cost of rural crime rose 40%. And yet, despite all this, the Countryside Alliance Rural Survey for Wales reported in February that 56% of respondents believed that the police were failing to take countryside crime seriously.
All of which hints at the real crime perpetrated on the countryside: it’s been abandoned. For what seems like forever, the shires have belonged to the Conservative Party, but the crime wave and the endless neglect are offering opposition parties sniffs of victory. The Green Party is surging; in the May local elections, the Greens even won Mid Suffolk district council from the Conservatives, taking 24 of the 34 seats and securing their first ever majority-held council in the UK. Overall, the Greens doubled their councillors nationally from 240 to 481. In the Sussex market town of Lewes, the Tories, once the largest party, were wiped off the electoral map.
Even Labour, usually as popular in the countryside as foot-and-mouth disease, feels victory in the air. Responding to the Countryside Alliance’s survey on rural crime, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “These figures show just how concerned people are about crime, including in rural communities across the country.” She went on to make her pitch in true-blue, law-and-order political territory: “Labour is the party of law and order. The next Labour government will deliver a Neighbourhood Policing Guarantee, with 13,000 extra neighbourhood police and PCSOs, and proper action to tackle antisocial behaviour.”
More coppers in the countryside? That’s exactly what rural communities want to hear. At the Future Countryside Conference last week, Labour peer Peter Mandelson set out his party’s rural stall with some gusto, reminding the audience that, despite lacklustre rural returns in recent years, the Labour Party had historically taken a decidedly pro-countryside approach. The “countryside was, is and will be a great Labour cause”, he said. He also warned the progressive wing of his party against “picking a fight” with rural people and their traditions, before taking aim at the Conservatives’ rural record in government for the past 13 years, declaring that he saw “a Conservative party that has taken rural Britain for granted” and that country people are “feeling let down and angry”.
Mandy, nobody’s fool, is sensitive to rural discontent. He was, as a player in Tony Blair’s government, on the wrong side of the 2002 Liberty and Livelihood march, the biggest rural demonstration ever. But he’s correct to note that this rebellious Us (the country people) vs. Them (the townies) mentality is boiling over once again. I’ve spent the last fortnight travelling around the West Country, including visiting the agricultural Three Counties Show at Malvern, where one young woman farmer said to me: “If the fucking crime is what pronoun to use, then they [city types] need a fucking sense of priorities.” She then went on to list various Tory deficiencies regarding the countryside, from “confusion” on agricultural policies to failure to “deliver anything from Brexit”.
She, like many other farmers, won’t be voting Conservative at the next election. That number has plunged since 2020, according to a December 2022 survey by Farmer’s Weekly. Just 42% said they would vote Conservative in a general election, down from 71% in 2020. The countryside is seeing red. Mandelson is hoping it will vote red. That might happen here and there; more likely, I suspect, is that at the next election, the countryside will stick two fingers up at the lot of them at the next election.