Police from Austria, Germany and the Netherlands have arrested an international gang of tractor thieves, the latest move in a campaign against a Europe-wide countryside crime wave which costs farmers and agricultural equipment dealers millions every year.
The gang arrested have allegedly been stealing tractors and other farm equipment in large numbers and selling them online.
According to the Local, Austrian police began investigations last year after a 43-year-old Austrian man was stopped at a checkpoint with what turned out to be a stolen tractor on his trailer. Eight similar vehicles were then discovered on his property. Further investigations linked dozens more vehicles to the man.
The crime is not new, but Europol warned in January that “the numbers of thefts and affected countries have been increasing.”
Europol, the EU agency which handles criminal intelligence, said many of the crimes involve the theft of high-value machinery from dealerships. In France alone, more than 40 tractors were stolen in 2013 from dealers. The value of the stolen machinery added up to more than €3m (£2.4m).
Europol says: “The crime groups involved are well organised, feature a clear division of tasks and have an international dimension. Stolen tractors are loaded onto lorries and transported to other countries. Some of the stolen tractors were discovered in Germany, Hungary and Romania. Tractors stolen in other countries such as the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Austria were recovered in Hungary.”
Used machinery is stolen from farmers. For example, within 18 months to the end of 2013, 20 tractors were stolen from farmers in the Austrian district of Burgenland close to the Hungarian border. The total loss was estimated at more than €1m (£800,000).
In January, Eurojust, the EU’s judicial cooperation unit, disclosed details of a successful operation involving police from France, Spain and Romania. The operation uncovered a gang of Romanians living in Spain who had stolen tractors worth a total of €3.2m (£2.6m). The Romanian gang members loaded the tractors, worth around €80,000 (£64,100) each, onto trucks and drove them to Eastern Europe.
One problem with keeping tractors secure, according to Europol, is that the keys for vehicles are often interchangeable, even among tractors of different makes: “The absence of license plates or other identification marks on most of them machinery is another vulnerability. Initiatives to raise awareness and enhance preventative measures have not had the desired effect of noticeably reducing the number of thefts.
According to France24 news channel, criminal gangs operating in the French countryside are also taking wire, fencing, irrigation equipment, tools, greenhouses, tanks and vines. Livestock, sometimes butchered on site, and crops are being stolen from the fields: “Last summer 11 tons of peaches evaporated from the trees on two farms in Pyrenées-Orientales in the south, six tons of wheat vanished in the Vaucluse in the southeast, six more in the Nièvre in the heart of the country.”
“In October, a farmer in Lorraine in the northeast awoke to find that thieves had taken a ton and a half of potatoes overnight. The previous week, a Bordeaux winemaker was unpleasantly surprised to discover 30 hectares of vines harvested without her knowledge.”
A French farmers union leader has called on the government to stop this “organised looting.”