Farm Ireland

Tuesday 23 January 2018

'Brazen and fearless' gangs change tactics

Criminals are now renting houses in rural areas to 'case' out potential targets for robberies

Cashel Mart manager Alison de Vere Hunt has had five break-ins at her premises in the past year.
Cashel Mart manager Alison de Vere Hunt has had five break-ins at her premises in the past year.

Ken Whelan

Crime remains 'rampant' along the country's motorway corridors with farmers and rural communities still experiencing significant losses from robberies and break-ins.

The crime rate, however, is dropping in more isolated areas of the country, away from the motorway network, according to Paddy Byrne, president of Muintir na Tire.

Communities are becoming aware that the gangs involved seem to have developed a new 'modus operandi' in which they rent houses in rural areas for a number of months. They scout out potential targets and then move on after a crime spree in their former neighbourhoods, says Mr Byrne.

Rural crime figures from the Central Statistics Office, published last Friday, show there were 3,785 incidents of handling stolen property recorded overall in rural Ireland during the nine months to last September.

There were 853 robberies at farms or at farm outhouses, sheds and yards in the first three quarters of the year.

In recent weeks robberies at farms and farm enterprises in counties Offaly, Tipperary and Laois have been reported.

The gangs carrying out these crimes were described as "brazen and fearless" by mart manager, Alison De Vere Hunt, whose premises in Cashel has been broken into five times over the past year.

She says the talk among farmers around her sales ring now centres on when a tragedy will occur during one of these robberies.

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"Farmers are saying they'll shoot first and ask questions later if they are confronted in future by any one of these raiders," the Co Tipperary businesswoman told the Farming Independent this week.

"Action will not be taken, it seems, until either a robbery victim or one of the robbers is shot during one of these incidents. It will come down to that," she says.

They are counting the costs at her own mart, which holds cattle sales every Saturday mainly for local small and medium sized beef farmers, after the recent robberies.

"These gangs are just brazen and have no sense of fear. They think they are unstoppable," she says.

In the latest raid at the mart, the robbers, who were wearing balaclavas, actually looked up and waved at the security cameras.

"They obviously cased the mart earlier on the trading Saturday and came back to rob the power washer. This is the third time a power washer has been stolen despite us spending a good deal of money on upgrading security at the mart. Now we just hire in a power washer when one is required," she says.

"On another occasion last year they broke into the mart office and just wrecked the place.

"They have no fear. That raid took place at around 10 o'clock at night and they had to use angle grinders to get into the office. We are located near the Rock of Cashel and there are houses nearby but they were not worried that the noise would be heard by the local residents. It was no bother to them," she says.

The mart manager says there was a feeling that "local knowledge" was being used by these robbers when they were setting up a farm or farm business for one of these raids and this was something that has to be addressed by the gardai and local rural communities.

"And farmers sometimes unknowingly buy the robbed farm equipment without checking its source," says Ms De Vere Hunt.

"It should be obvious to them that if they are getting this equipment for knock-down prices, then there is something wrong."

It is a view accepted by farmer Charlie O'Connor (pictured) whose farm shed in Abbeyleix was yet again robbed last week.

The farm shed, which he sub leases to a lighting company had some €3,000 in cordless machinery taken when the robbers managed to loosen shed sheeting which had been reinforced with nails after a previous robbery.

'It's the same old story. These gangs don't care what security is in place. Nothing has changed," he says.

Muintir's spokesman Mr Byrne says more resources will have to be allocated to tackle what he described as the "motorway" gangs involved in rural crime.

"They say that there is more urban than rural crime at the moment and crime has decreased in isolated areas but it is rampant in rural areas near the motorways especially in the midlands," he said.

The only way to beat these gangs was for rural communities to get together in community-alert and neighbourhood-watch schemes and face them down, he stressed.

Mr Byrne was hopeful that a new Garda/farmer initiative, currently being trialled in West Cork, in which farm machinery and property is marked with a place of origin will further will help in combating this crime.

The IFA has also developed Theft Stop with gardai to mark machinery and other equipment with a unique ID to help deter thieves. The ID is then registered on an online database. Mr Byrne also called on the Government to ban cash transactions at scrap metal dealers so that a paper trail is created for every item of farm machinery bought or sold.

Seamus Boland of Rural Link said the rural crime issue "has not left the agenda and has not been fixed".

The "fear and suffering of people affected by these crimes does not go away easily," he said. Mr Boland is worried that people in rural Ireland were now talking about the need to be armed to protect their property.

Mr Boland believes that confidence in the policing rural Ireland has been weakened, while the extra security costs for farmers in terms of purchasing CCTV cameras, alarms and complex locking systems, is being overlooked.

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