Many farmers under-report crimes such as stock theft, rural trespass, and illegal hunting – and should be encouraged to report more offences.
This is the key message of a two-day conference on Rural Crime and the Law held by UNE’s School of Law last Thursday and Friday, November 29 and 30.
Academics from around Australia, as well as from Africa and the UK, examined whether current laws and policy were effective, gaps between the law and community expectations, and ways to improve policy and practice.
Many farmers, it was found, believe the police cannot find culprits, or retrieve stolen livestock, and feel that penalties are inadequate deterrents.
“Farmers often don’t think the police can do anything,” organiser Associate Professor Elaine Barclay said.
“They feel: What’s the point? We can’t prove anything, because often thefts aren’t discovered for some time, and there’s a lack of evidence.”
Illegal trespassing and hunting are often accompanied by opportunistic crimes such as firearm theft, diesel theft, and animal cruelty.
“It’s really been quite traumatic,” Professor Barclay said. “Farmers feel unable to protect their land and their stock.”
Intruders come onto farming families’ land at all hours of the night. They go through fences, illegally shoot livestock (often by accident), steal fuels, guns, and the lights off tractors, destroy organic crops, and shoot around people’s homes in the middle of the night.
Legislation has been tightened up to more effectively police these offences, following former NSW Police Force Assistant Commissioner Steve Bradshaw’s report last year.
The report argued that penalties were inadequate deterrents, as they were usually far below both the maximum penalty and the quantum of loss.
Fines for illegal hunting have since been doubled; a new aggravated trespass offence introduced; and firearms legislation, livestock theft, and cruelty to animals can carry jail sentences of up to 14 years.
Farmers, Professor Barclay said, need to have more confidence in the police. Cops can do a lot more than farmers think they can, thanks to technology and tighter laws.
“The NSW police have poured a lot of money into this,” she said. “They’re aware that farmers have been suffering in silence a lot of the time; they’ve done it tough with the drought – and they don’t deserve any more of this victimization.”
Farmers should report crimes through online apps; visiting or phoning their local police station; or through Facebook sites.
“If police don’t know about it, they can’t act,” Professor Barclay said.
The police will be aware something is wrong in the area, and can focus their resources, including drones.
“The amazing technology that’s available now really enhances their ability to respond to farmers,” Professor Barclay said.
Farmers can also use technology to protect their livestock. Security cameras can record information; many offenders have been arrested based on that sort of evidence.
At a workshop for farmers and primary producers on the Friday, David Smith demonstrated his Ceres Tags, used to monitor the movement of stock.
These tiny solar-powered tags can be installed in livestock; all the technology goes back to a database system.
“If you suddenly get an alert that your stock have been moved down the road,” Professor Barclay said, “you can contact the authorities, and get that checked out. If you’re on your property, you can certainly go down, and find out what’s happening.”
The Department of Primary Industries is researching DNA testing of livestock. This solves the old problem: not being able to prove that livestock has been stolen.
“If you’ve got DNA evidence, that’s solid proof,” Professor Barclay said.