TRIBUTES have been paid to a hard-working farmer's wife who died as her husband and son confronted thieves raiding their premises for diesel.

Frank and Rosemary Dove saw a man taking red diesel from their farm in Bishop Middleham, County Durham, on Sunday night.

Mr Dove and his son, James, chased the thief to a field, where the younger man was badly injured when he was hit by the getaway vehicle.

Mrs Dove, 68, who had returned to the farmhouse to call for help, collapsed and subsequently died.

Yesterday, members of the community said they had been shocked by the incident and paid tribute to Mrs Dove.

One farmer said: "We are all close and try to look out for each other.

"It's desperately sad and I know everyone's thoughts are with all the family.

"If they had arrived a few minutes later, she might not have faced the vile thief and not have felt the stress that probably caused her death."

Villager Eric Potts said: "I've always felt Frank and Rosie are a lovely couple.

"She was a good, friendly person and a very capable support for her husband on the farm. I remember seeing her get 90 sheep across the A177.

"It is a tragedy that criminal people have broken up a close, hard-working family."

Mrs Dove and her husband, whose full name is William Frank, were returning home at about 8.30pm after visiting the Royal Highland Show, in Edinburgh, with relatives.

As the couple approached East House Farm they spotted a vehicle on their premises and saw a man trying to steal diesel from a pump.

While Mr Dove went to confront the intruder, his wife went inside the house to telephone the police and alert their two sons, who farm nearby.

A police spokesman said: "Mrs Dove complained of feeling unwell immediately after making the 999 call and collapsed on the floor of her farm.

"She was later pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics."

In the meantime, her husband, who had been joined by his son, James, and other relatives, chased the intruders' silver Mitsubishi-style pick-up truck across the fields in their own vehicles.

At one stage they managed to corner the pick-up truck.

James, 44, who is better-known as Michael, got out of his car to approach it. But when the pick-up turned to break out of the cordon, it knocked him into a ditch.

He was taken by ambulance to the University Hospital of North Tees, in Stockton, with a double hip fracture and a minor head wound, which police said were not life-threatening.

Mrs Dove's death is the second tragedy to rock County Durham's farming community in less than a week, after a threeyear-old boy died in an accident at the same agricultural show the Dove family had been visiting.

Ben Craggs, whose parents, Jonathan Craggs and Dawn Surtees, run a farm and bed and breakfast at nearby Sedgefield, died last Thursday when a bollard he was playing near fell on him.

Sunday night's incident is the latest in an increasing number of fuel thefts in recent months. Northumberland farmer Richard Dodd, the North-East director of the Countryside Alliance, said: "The trend probably started up six months ago. The criminals have come out and found rich pickings in the countryside. These gangs realise this is a commodity and they can also sell it readily."

Police have appealed for witnesses to Sunday night's raid and anyone who may have seen the pick-up truck, which had a distinctive amber lighting bar on the roof.

Detective Chief Inspector Paul Harker, who is leading the investigation, said: "We urgently need any help that will lead us to those involved in this tragic series of events, which have left the Dove family absolutely devastated."

Detectives believe the vehicle's front was damaged when it crashed through wooden gates and a fence to escape.

The intruder was described as white, of muscular build, with short, dark brown hair and aged between 20 and 30. He was wearing a checked shirt.

Anyone with information is urged to call police on 0845-60- 60-365, or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800-555111.