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Fighting rural crime in Rutland, from tractor thefts and tracing tools to helping the RSPCA with animals





When a £75,000, six-foot wide tractor goes missing, who are you going to call?

Strangely enough, it’s the same people you might contact if a stray sheep is on a road endangering itself and drivers.

‘PC Chris’ and ‘PC Matt’ - as they are known to many rural folk - take pride in being old-school police officers, ready to visit every crime and victim that comes under their radar.

Rutland shepherds Paul Fletcher, Vicky Gordon, Jack Pearce and Ali Johnstone chat with PCs Chris Vickers and Matt Houghton
Rutland shepherds Paul Fletcher, Vicky Gordon, Jack Pearce and Ali Johnstone chat with PCs Chris Vickers and Matt Houghton

And it is this approach, teamed with today’s tech, that means they are preventing crimes that would otherwise harm people’s livelihoods, and recovering stolen goods worth many thousands of pounds.

PC Chris Vickers and PC Matt Houghton are part of the Leicestershire and Rutland Rural Policing Team, set up in July 2021 to protect people who live and work in the area’s countryside.

They get to know people in their community, keep up with the local chat, and are on the end of the phone when people need them.

PC Matt Houghton, left, and PC Chris Vickers have urban beat backgrounds, Chris having joined the Leicestershire force 20 years ago, and Matt having started as a PCSO before making the switch in 2015 to become an investigating officer with the power to arrest and interview suspects.
PC Matt Houghton, left, and PC Chris Vickers have urban beat backgrounds, Chris having joined the Leicestershire force 20 years ago, and Matt having started as a PCSO before making the switch in 2015 to become an investigating officer with the power to arrest and interview suspects.

“We stay in touch with about 700 people through three WhatsApp groups,” said Chris, who added that there were about 260 people on the Rutland group alone.

“People can share information with the group, which might be about a person in a vehicle acting suspiciously on their land, or a trailer left in a field that could have been stolen.

“We are also in touch with people over the county boundaries - because criminals don’t have borders.”

Intelligence gathered from people in remote locations can make all the difference to Chris and Matt’s crime clean-up rate.

PC Chris Vickers is able to scan tractors for electronic identity information
PC Chris Vickers is able to scan tractors for electronic identity information

Abandoned machinery may have been stolen, moved and then left for a time to see if it has a tracker fitted. Those with trackers are soon collected.

Meanwhile, sharing the registration of vehicles coming onto farm property can flag up a thief checking out different places to target.

“We always say, if you see something that doesn’t look right, let us know,” said Chris.

A rural view from the police Ford Ranger
A rural view from the police Ford Ranger

“Since the rural team was set up we have been trying to get people in the community to trust their police officers, like they used to.”

As well as responding directly to people reporting crime, Chris and Matt patrol rural lanes and less-used routes through Rutland.

They can cover 150 miles a day in a Ford Ranger equipped with a dozen traffic cones for cordoning accidents, fluorescent jackets, a first aid kit, scanners to detect vehicle trackers, dog leads, horse collars, treats for encouraging both species to comply with police orders, various tools and a ‘big red key’ - the battering ram officers can use to open locked doors.

PC Matt Houghton and PC Chris Vickers with the Ford Ranger police vehicle
PC Matt Houghton and PC Chris Vickers with the Ford Ranger police vehicle

Recognising they cut a distinctive sight in their police-branded 4x4,Chris said: “Residents we’ve met in the past often give us a wave when they see us in the Ford Ranger. No one waves at a police car.”

Nathan Sewell, who farms sheep and arable at North Luffenham, bumped into Chris and Matt in Ben Burgess, the John Deere tractor dealership in Hackamore Way, Oakham.

Nathan had tools stolen from his workshop at the end of February and has been in regular contact with the two officers.

PC Matt Houghton and PC Chris Vickers with a John Deere tractor at the Ben Burgess dealership in Oakham
PC Matt Houghton and PC Chris Vickers with a John Deere tractor at the Ben Burgess dealership in Oakham

He said: “It was just about the start of lambing and I was woken at about two or three in the morning.

“I thought it was the dog making a noise and went back to sleep, but on going out in the morning found all our Stihl tools were gone and some Milwaukee ones. It was £7,000 worth.”

They were later recovered by Chris and Matt from a location near Grantham.

PC Chris Vickers is often involved in checking the serial numbers of recovered tools in order to return them to the owners
PC Chris Vickers is often involved in checking the serial numbers of recovered tools in order to return them to the owners

Nathan added: “It’s good that we have a lot of personal communication with the police. I can ring these guys up, or if it’s not urgent I can alert them and other people to something suspicious through the WhatsApp group.”

Matt said: “We rely on people like Nathan and their use of the WhatsApp group to be our eyes and ears.”

While in the John Deere branch, Nathan passes on a partial registration number of a vehicle that was recently seen on his property.

A rural crime team display board at Ben Burgess in Hackamore Way, Oakham
A rural crime team display board at Ben Burgess in Hackamore Way, Oakham

The use of unbranded or hired vans by legitimate delivery firms causes a headache for farmers like Nathan, who are understandably twitchy about vehicles appearing in their yards, particularly those large enough to carry off equipment and quad bikes used for day-to-day farming.

Chris and Matt advise on methods to combat thefts and speed up the return of stolen goods, including the use of unique serial numbers on most quality power tools, which can be registered to the buyer.

Matt said: “If we find a load of stolen tools we can phone up Stihl, for example, and find out who bought them.

PC Matt Houghton works with companies such as Stihl to return stolen tools to the owners
PC Matt Houghton works with companies such as Stihl to return stolen tools to the owners

“We also encourage people to mark all their equipment with a word, number or symbol that they can tell us about. This makes their tools easy to spot among various items recovered.”

Among the largest items that can be stolen are tractors and combine harvesters - and despite their vast proportions they do get pinched.

But while criminals might scratch off external serial numbers, modern farm machines come with hidden electronic identification codes only traceable using a scanner police have access to.

PC Matt Houghton points out an identification plate on a John Deere tractor. These are difficult to remove and if they're found to be missing it's likely something fishy is going on
PC Matt Houghton points out an identification plate on a John Deere tractor. These are difficult to remove and if they're found to be missing it's likely something fishy is going on

At the John Deere branch, staff and police can pull up a map showing the live location of hundreds of their tractors as well as revealing their recent movements, which mainly appear as tightly-packed U-shapes up and down fields. It’s a sort of Strava for farmers.

This helps prevent expensive equipment ‘disappearing’.

While preventing and investigating thefts forms a large part of Chris and Matt’s work, crimes involving animals also come under their remit.

This can be in the form of hare coursing, in which people bet on which of two dogs can follow the turns of a hare they are chasing. The sport has been illegal for 20 years, and often involves cruelty towards dogs as well as the hare population, and damage to gates and crops on private land.

Another crime in which animal-lovers can find themselves being the culprits is livestock worrying.

A dog off a lead that chases sheep, cattle or other livestock can cause such distress the farm animals can die without even being touched by the dog.

Chris and Matt can recount incidents of sheep dying because of irresponsible dog owners, and on one occasion three sheep drowning after being driven into Rutland Water by someone’s pet.

The officers work alongside the RSPCA to seize pets or farm animals that are potentially being mistreated and need taking to a vet for assessment, or wildlife and livestock that have got into difficulties.

“We’re trained to tie up a sheep’s legs with twine to stop them from moving and injuring themselves,” said Chris.

“We also rescued a swan once and had to transport it on the seat of our patrol vehicle.”

They have also stepped in to help humans that have got into difficulties, and during last winter’s floods towed vehicles that had broken down in high water and blocked roads.

A final but not insignificant part of the rural team’s role is heritage crime, which can involve lead thefts from church roofs, or ‘nighthawking’ - metal detecting in farmers’ fields at night and keeping any finds.

Finds legally defined as treasure need to be declared to police or a local coroner within 14 days, while other items remain the property of the landowner.

While this might not sound the worst of crimes, Chris and Matt’s overriding message is for people to ‘report everything’.

“We want people to tell us what is happening and they can do this most easily using 101 online,” said Chris.

People without internet access can phone 101 to report non-urgent crime, or 999 in an emergency.



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