GANGS are using silent electric scooters to steal expensive farming equipment amid a rise in rural crime across Cheshire.

Dubbed ‘Rural Wraiths’, the gangs use the scooters to make off along country lanes at high speed.

Some of the equipment targeted includes GPS which typical costs around £10,000.

Without GPS – an essential part of modern farming – harvests can be delayed, and some farmers left unable to work.

This has contributed to a huge 27 per cent rise – to an estimated £855,000 – in the cost of rural thefts in 2020, according to figures released by NFU Mutual.

In its Rural Crime Report, published this week, NFU Mutual reveals the north west was the only region where the cost of rural crime rose (+3 per cent to £3.7m) over the pandemic.

NFU Mutual saw the UK-wide cost of claims for GPS almost double last year to £2.9m, as demand across the globe fuelled the crime wave. To combat this, they are investing £430,000 in targeted rural security schemes this year.

The extra funding will help police join forces with local farmers, set up covert operations and recover more stolen machinery from countries across Europe.

Rebecca Davidson, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, said: “Despite coronavirus restrictions, determined criminals have targeted farmyards for high-value items such as global positioning systems (GPS) which contributed to the county’s cost rise last year.

“These figures would be far higher if it weren’t for the specialist rural crime team at Cheshire Police, and we are encouraged by one of their recent joint operations in which three people were arrested in connection with GPS theft."

Inspector Brian Green of Cheshire Constabulary’s Rural Crime Team, said: “Although it is disappointing to see that the figures relating to the cost of rural crime have increased, I would like to reassure everyone that we are doing all we can to track down those responsible and bring them to justice."

Ms Davidson added: “We are urging the public, many of whom are using the countryside more, to support our farmers and rural communities by reporting suspicious sightings to the police.

"Our farmers have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic keeping the nation fed and caring for the countryside.

"By working together, we can help stem the tide when the criminals become more active again.”

Other rural crimes, including dog attacks on livestock and fly-tipping rose sharply across the UK.

The value of sheep and cattle attacked by dogs shot up by 10 per cent in 2020 to £1.3m in a year which saw a surge in pet ownership and countryside visits.

The situation continues to worsen as NFU Mutual claims data shows the cost of attacks rose 50 per cent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period last year.

Fly-tipping in fields, gateways and country lanes reached epidemic proportions as waste recycling centres restricted access, leaving farmers to deal with the clean-up and risks to their health and that of their livestock and the environment.

While livestock theft fell sharply across the UK in 2020 – down 25 per cent to a cost of £2.3m – the issue persisted in the North West, with the total (£330,000) remaining almost static with a one per cent rise.