SUSPECTED thieves bit off more than they could chew when they made off with a farmer’s feeding trough – spotted by police helicopter crew protruding from their car boot.

Swift team work between officers and the rural community meant the stolen animal feeder was recovered before the victim even knew it was gone.

Officers from the Cleveland and Durham Specialist Operations Unit leapt into action when they received intelligence that a car, allegedly been seen in suspicious circumstances the week before, was spotted in the Cockfield area of County Durham.

The National Police Air Service team joined the hunt on their way back from helping look for a missing person.

Carrying out an extensive search of the area, the VW Passat was spotted by the helicopter crew, in Bishop Auckland, with an unusual item protruding from the boot.

The image snapped by the team was relayed to the officers on the ground who used pre-emptive tactics to stop the car and identified the item as a large animal feeder.

Control room operator, Peter Hetherington, provided crucial information when he used his knowledge and contacts from his role in the special constable rural team to send WhatsApp message.

The Darlington branch of the Farmwatch network has a specialist WhatsApp messenger group to share information throughout the rural community which has proved to be an effective way of sharing information and improving communication within the rural community.

It helped identify the victim still unaware the feeder had allegedly been stolen.

The car was stopped and the large metal goat feeding trough was recovered along with several other items.

A woman and two men were arrested on suspicion of theft. They have since been released under investigation.

Inspector for Crook, Weardale and Teesdale, Ed Turner, said: “This is a brilliant example of good rural policing to bring about a successful result and thwart attempts to target our rural community.

“It was one of those occasions where all the pieces fitted together and we could respond with everything we had bringing about the arrest of three people and returning valuable assets back to their owners.”

Mr Hetherington added: “I had received information about this vehicle the week before, so it was great to be able to use that knowledge when it came to our attention.

“Everyone worked together on both the ground and in the rural community through the WhatsApp group and it was great to see such a successful result - it was like working in an episode of The Bill.”

Acting inspector, Dave Clarke, the force incident manager during the incident, said: “The work of the officers on the ground and in the air was excellent. However, the contribution of professional and highly trained control room staff is cannot be underestimated.

“Pete was particularly crucial to the positive outcome in this case and it all stems from his dedication to the rural community as a volunteer within the special constabulary.

“Just like a well-tuned orchestra, it can only sound its best with the flick of the conductor’s baton bringing all the instruments together.”