Reported rural crime in the New Forest area has seen a threefold increase in recent years. It might be assumed that this escalation refl ects a rise in criminal activity itself, but actually this isn?t the case at all. It is, rather, the result of the formation of Country Watch, a policing unit that has given the rural community a confidence to report the crimes that take place.

The unit is the brainchild of Sergeant Louise Hubble, who heads the Country Watch team within the Western Local Policing Area in Hampshire. Prior to her initiative there were six neighbourhood police teams based in urban areas within the Forest.

These units concentrated their efforts on the crimes committed within their locale including underage drinking, drug dealing and antisocial behaviour. Consequently, reports of rural crimes were considered low priority and minor offences were not even reported. Sergeant Hubble recognised this failing and presented a paper to senior officers putting forward the idea of a dedicated rural police team.

Gaining the confidence of the countryside

In order to familiarise herself with the crimes faced by those who live and work in the countryside, Sergeant Hubble accompanied keepers, river keepers, farmers and other rural workers as they went about their daily duties. She began to understand the problems they faced, and by focusing on poaching, fly-tipping, wildlife crime and rural theft, she gained the confidence of the local community.

Sergeant Hubble now has two police constables and a police community support officer to assist her. Each officer is either from a rural background or has an interest in the countryside. Sergeant Hubble herself can often be seen in the beating line and is training a Labrador puppy. One of her officers hails from a long line of keepers and another is a keen angler. They are all qualified as wildlife crime officers, equine liaison officers and hunt liaison officers. They are also trained animal handlers and can deal with most situations involving farmed, domestic and wild animals, including birds of prey. They offer free advice on security and crime prevention and will visit farms, fisheries and shooting estates to impart this advice.

Country Watch does not have a membership scheme as such, but once contact has been established with an individual or organisation, they are kept informed of reported rural crime activity and other issues by email bulletins.

The success of Country Watch can be measured by the increase there has been in the investigation of rural crime, the improved education in the prevention of rural crime and the number of convictions that has been achieved for a wide range of offences. A ?stop and check? policy with regard to any suspicious-looking vehicle has resulted in many vehicles that have been used in crimes being destroyed.

Not content with the success of Country Watch, Sergeant Hubble proposed Forest Watch which was formed from eight partner agencies: Hampshire Constabulary, National Park Authority, Natural England, the National Farmers Union, the Forestry Commission, the Environment Agency, Hampshire Fire & Rescue Service and New Forest District Council. Together with Country Watch, it has created a huge network of expertise and information, which is proving extremely useful to all concerned.

In three years Country Watch has developed far beyond initial expectations. More Country Watch teams have been created in other areas in Hampshire and on the Isle of Wight. Commanders from other counties, having seen what can be achieved, have followed Hampshire?s example and formed similar units in their own constabularies.

The success of Country Watch reflects the excellent attitude of Hampshire Constabulary to rural crime. It?s an accolade to the hard work and dedication of Sergeant Hubble and her team, and it demonstrates how important public participation is when countering crime.