Organised crime gangs are stealing farm machinery and GPS kits worth tens of thousands of pounds to sell on in the UK and abroad, an insurer has warned.

NFU Mutual said some thieves use drones to scope out where valuable equipment is kept, or check social media to see what kit farmers are using and when they might be away.

The insurer said the cost of rural crime in the UK rose by 22% to an estimated £49.5m in 2022, up from £40.5m the previous year.

Rising prices and a low supply of farm machinery are thought to be behind an increase in vehicle thefts, with the cost rising 20% to £11.7m last year.

GPS theft rose by 15%, or £1.8 million, in 2022, and continued to increase in the first four months of 2023 when the cost of positioning systems doubled compared to the same period the previous year.

The equipment, that costs more than £10,000, is used to guide tractors and combine harvesters.

Thefts of quad bikes and ATVs also went up, by 34% to £3 million, as did livestock theft, which went up 8.7% or £2.7 million.

The figures, in NFU Mutual’s annual report on rural crime, came after the National Crime Agency warned earlier this month that a range of offences including agricultural crime are likely to rise amid the cost-of-living crisis.

A field of wheat in Gloucestershire
A field of wheat in Gloucestershire (PA)

Hannah Binns, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, said: “Highly organised gangs are causing disruption to farming and widespread concern to people who live and work in the countryside.

“Rural theft is changing. It is not only opportunist thieves travelling a few miles, we are now seeing internationally organised criminal activity.

“These gangs target high-value farm machinery and GPS kits because they can be sold all over the world.

“Many items are stolen to order by thieves using online technology to identify where farm machinery is stored and scope out the best way to steal it.

“They will also spend hours watching the movement of farming families to work out the best time to attack.

“Loss of vital machinery and GPS equipment causes huge disruption to farmers who are already stretched to the limit and replacing kit in the current economic situation can take months, adding additional stress.”

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “We are committed to tackling rural crime, which is why we are providing the police with the resources they need, after recruiting 20,000 additional officers. We are supporting forces through funding for crime prevention measures, such as CCTV and better technology.”

“We have legislated to require immobilisers and forensic markings to be fitted to new agricultural equipment before it is sold to customers, helping to further protect rural communities from crime.”