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'One key fits all' tractor policy blamed for countryside crime wave

Dave Harvey | 14:57 UK time, Friday, 28 May 2010

farmtheft_dha.jpg

Farmers always have something to moan about. At least, that's how it often looks to townies. Too wet, too dry, too many regulations, not enough regulations for foreigners, you name it.

But here's something they really are the victims of: Crime.

A rather particular agricultural crime, in fact. Tractor theft, as you can imagine, hits farmers much more than the rest of us. And last year, £1m of farm vehicles were stolen from South West Farms, according to the insurers' group, the National Plant & Equipment Register (TER).

"It's extremely frustrating," says Rob Canvin, who farms near Somerton, in Somerset, and has lost three vehicles in the last month.

"If a member of the public had his Ferrari nicked, he'd be furious - but these vehicles cost more than that, and it's really really annoying."

The extraordinary thing is, the manufacturers seem to make life easy for country crooks. When you buy any new car these days, alarms and immobilisers are standard. Yet on most tractors and farm vehicles, even a unique key is asking too much.

Yes that's right. All Massey Fergusson tractors have the same key , except the company's 4400 series. All John Deeres have the same ignition key, as do JCB vehicles.

"I've got a key in my pocket that will start every vehicle behind me," claims Nick Mayell.

Fortunately for West Country farmers, Mr Mayell is an investigator, not a thief. He is, in fact, the only full time investigator for the TER, based in Bath. He is, if you like, 'Nipper of the Farmyard'.

He shows us how easily a big digger he's recently recovered can be stolen. It is so simple, I'm not allowed to show TV viewers or this article will turn into a "how to steal a tractor" film.

Most of the major manufacturers confirmed to us that universal keys have been their policy up to now, although several are reviewing this after thefts increased so much recently. Fendt is the first tractor maker to go down the route of unique micro-chipped keys.

"It's very serious crime," says Mr Mayell, "this machine new would cost about £55 -60,000 - if you were caught with £55,000 worth of drugs, you go to prison for a long time - people get caught with this, and usually it's just a slap on the wrist".

The vehicles end up all over the world, sometimes traded for cash to poor farmers in Kurdistan or Iraq, often exchanged for drugs in the Middle East. You'd think it would be tricky to drive a huge farm tractor or digger onto a ferry unnoticed, but Mr Mayell says the police have, quite literally, been told to look the other way.

"Police Force priorities dictate that they're checking what's coming in, so what goes out is not so much of a priority."

The Police are cracking down on agricultural crime, Avon & Somerset Police recently launched Farm Watch - designed to get farmers talking to each other about theft - sharing crucial clues.
But until the manufacturers decide to fit unique keys to each vehicle, many farmers like Rob Canvin feel they might as well leave their barn doors wide open at night.

I'll be reporting live for BBC Points West from the Royal Bath & West Show from Wed 2 June until Friday. If you've got a story from the countryside, come and find us at the BBC Somerset Bus, near the Village Green, or get me on twitter.

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