AN army of farm workers were recruited to take part in a major operation aimed at combating rural crime in the North-East.

Over two nights this week, County Durham and parts of North Yorkshire and Cumbria hosted the biggest Farm-watch operation ever organised.

Operation Idaho, consisted of 145 police and volunteers on Wednesday and Thursday night, keeping watch over 1,250 square miles of countryside.

Although no arrests were made during the hours of the operation, 170 vehicles were stopped by police following surveillance by the volunteers.

Twenty-four of the vehicles had "information markers", which indicated that police were interested in the occupants in relation to other crimes.

Community Inspector Kevin Tuck, of Barnard Castle police, said: "This has been the biggest Farmwatch ever undertaken and I want to build on it and enhance it.

"I think it sends a message to criminals who might think of the countryside as a soft touch.

"It is also a preventative measure, because although we want to recover stolen goods and arrest people, we also want to reduce crime.

"Some of those cars that were stopped may have been on their way to commit crime and will have decided not to.

"On a lighter note, one entirely innocent man was stopped three times in two counties, but he appreciated what we were trying to do."

Each evening, more than 80 Farmwatch volunteers, including farmers, gamekeepers and water bailiffs, were backed by street wardens from Darlington, and uniformed and plain-clothed police.

The police spotter plane was also put on standby in case it was needed and a communications officer at the police control room in Bishop Auckland was dedicated to the operation.

Peter Stubbs, from Marwood, near Barnard Castle, was one of the farmers who helped set up the Farmwatch scheme with local police.

He said: "There's no doubt about it, it works. It is basically a matter of working with your neighbours and looking out for each other."

Phil Barber, secretary of the National Farmers' Union in Teesdale, said: "Operations like this are very successful and Farmwatch has gone from strength to strength.

"What makes it so successful is the commitment of the volunteers, who don't just complain, but are getting out there and doing something."

A bad night to be out thieving

"HAPPY hunting," says Inspector Kevin Tuck as he signals the start of Operation Idaho, the biggest operation mounted by Teesdale Farmwatch volunteers.

For the next two nights, parked like courting couples at road junctions and laybys, a motley collection of pick-ups, Land Rovers and 4x4s will be acting as the eyes and ears of the police.

"We do get some farming done when we're not sitting up here doing this," jokes one Farmwatch volunteer, as he patrols from his pick-up at the top of Teesdale late on Thursday night.

With more than 145 people keeping an eye out on the rural roads and lanes of three counties, it is not a good time for any would-be villains to be out and about.

"Some of these people will steal anything that has any sort of value," says Insp Tuck, highlighting recent thefts of stable doors, gates, bags of seed, and, more worryingly, a 12-gauge shotgun.

In his police van, radios chatter seemingly unintelligible details of people being pulled over as part of the operation.

Details of past convictions for theft, drug offences and violent offences are read out.

At Staindrop, parked up with a flask of coffee, Farmwatch founder Peter Stubbs and neighbour Geoffrey Wilson listen to the events on their radio.

"They're really giving them some hammer over in Weardale," says Mr Wilson

"There's just been some details of a bloke with a record of arson and theft - he sounds a real darling."

With just the slightest air of cynicism, Insp Tuck says: "It's amazing the amount of people with markers for theft you get driving about in the countryside at this time of night."