I've asked Chris Sambrook of Harper Adams to talk a bit about Rural Criminology. I know as a green criminologist that there is an uncomfortable overlap; crimes by and against farmers don't sit neatly in a nice pristine offender/victim matrix. It's more than the theft of machinery, animal cruelty or 'get of my land'. Cue the Archers theme tune.
Rural crime has found a new voice, or rather it has found a voice that previously saw it as little more than a convenient column filler. Rural journalism has long treated machinery theft, hare coursing, poaching and the other crimes spread across their rural crime palette as a reportable irritant rather than a core issue. But not anymore. Rural crime is now making the front pages, both of the specialist press dealing in agricultural and countryside matters and of local newspapers with a rural leaning. In fact we might be tempted to say that it has found two new voices, for this reporting often carries a police quote and details of the latest constabulary initiative to tackle the problem. It seems then that the police have also discovered rural crime.
Of course as a rural criminologist I am scarcely going to complain about my subject being thrust into public consciousness. Indeed this coverage is most welcome, for at a time when overall crime incident is falling rural crime has seen a considerable upsurge. But it makes me wonder, why the sudden interest?
The truth is it is not sudden for to misquote Eddie Cantor it has taken rural crime many years to become an overnight success. There are probably many factors at play here, but might I suggest that greater public access to the setting of police priorities and the need to placate the demands of an influential rural electorate, both consequential to the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners, has been highly influential.
That said this new found interest causes me some concern, not least because it presents an extraordinarily narrow view of crime in the rural setting. Whilst the media coverage may have grown exponentially in volume we do not see any corresponding growth in breadth. Moreover, and perhaps of greater concern, this constrained view bears a remarkable similarity to the widely held police notion of what constitutes ‘rural crime’.
This shared discourse is potentially misleading for it takes no account of emerging rural crime or the uniqueness of widely occurring crimes when they happen in the rural setting. It is these issues that are at the core of much of the research being carried out by criminologists within the Centre for Rural Security at Harper Adams University. Take, for example, my own research into the emergence of counterfeit pesticides within the UK agricultural market. It is a crime with known links to transnational organised crime groups and with the potential to cause serious environmental and human health problems as well as its economic impact. And yet this, and similar non-traditional rural crimes, rarely make the local policing agenda.
Rural crime is growing, and as importantly it is changing. However, it seems that the way it is perceived and communicated is not. Perhaps then the time is right for an agri-cultural criminology, time for us to consider what has shaped this mediated notion of crime in the rural setting.