COUNTY lines dealing and the ‘cuckooing’ of vulnerable people are contributing to a stark increase in drugs seizures in North Yorkshire, The Northern Echo can reveal.

The area is being blighted and its residents harmed by a growth in violent and illicit activities linked to black market dealers and organised criminals intent on selling their illegal wares in small towns and rural districts.

Children are being exploited and forced to sell drugs on the streets while vulnerable people – often with disabilities or addictions – are having their homes taken over by ruthless criminals, police say.

Dealers from cities and urban areas are targeting North Yorkshire in an attempt to establish a foothold to sell often deadly drugs, with the distribution of crack cocaine and heroin predominantly linked to their efforts.

Government figures analysed by the Echo show that there was a 17 per cent increase in drugs seizures in North Yorkshire in 2018/19, compared to the year before.

The striking figures are reflective of pro-active police operations targeting county lines and cuckooing activity, according to a spokeswoman for North Yorkshire Police.

In 2018, the force introduced specialist teams focusing on county lines dealing, leading to a subsequent rise in the seizures of drugs including crack cocaine and heroin.

The force spokeswoman said tackling the issue was a key operational priority for officers, due to the exploitation of vulnerable people associated with the practice.

Highlighting the violence and intimidation linked to the problem, she added: “County lines is the term given to a form of organised crime in which drug dealers from urban areas exploit vulnerable people - including children - and force them to deal drugs in smaller towns and cities.

“It takes its name from the mobile phone lines used by dealers to communicate between towns, take orders and conduct their ‘business’.

“The lines are used to advertise drugs for sale and mass text messages are sent to users letting them know where and when they can buy drugs.

“The lines become valuable protected ‘brands’.”

In 2018, North Yorkshire officers made 191 arrests linked to county lines activities, while 99 were carried out in the first nine months of 2019.

The force is also becoming increasingly concerned about the growing problem of ‘cuckooing’, which sees dealers infiltrate the homes of vulnerable people to store and sell drugs, using violence and intimidation to achieve their aims.

Victims are often drug users themselves or otherwise vulnerable due to mental or physical disabilities, their age, being involved sex work or being single mothers.

North Yorkshire Police carries out welfare checks on known victims regularly and offers interventions including drug and alcohol support.

It has also issued formal warnings to householders to cease and desist suspected criminal activity.

Members of the public are urged to report any suspicions of drug dealing or cuckooing in their neighbourhoods.

Signs of cuckooing include increased callers at a property; a rise in anti-social behaviour; windows covered or curtains closed for a long period of time and the residents not being seen regularly.

Going missing from school or home, being found out of area and being in possession of unexplained money, clothes or phones are among the signs young people could be being exploited by county lines gangs.

Other indications include the carrying of weapons, unexplained injuries, isolation from peers and self-harm.