The cost of rural crime in Britain hit a seven-year high of £50 million last year, a report has revealed.

The rise – which is a 12 per cent increase on the previous year – was mainly driven by farm vehicle thefts, the cost of which went up 26 per cent to £7.4 million, insurance company NFU Mutual's 2019 Rural Crime Report found.

It is the highest total cost since 2011 – when it hit £52.7 million.

Gangs with links to money laundering and drugs are finding ways to beat security and steal the vehicles, which are often taken abroad to be sold, said the company's rural affairs specialist Tim Price.

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Price said farmers and rural dwellers are suffering 'high levels of anxiety' due to repeated thefts by gangs who take advantage of farms' isolated locations to steal machinery, raid tool stores and even butcher sheep in the fields.

He added: 'In a single generation, country people have seen rural crime change from the opportunist theft of a single lamb, to brazen heists of tractors worth over £100,000 and rustlers stealing hundreds of sheep.'

It comes as police hunt a gang suspected of killing livestock during 'unprecedented' attacks across Northamptonshire, Warwickshire and Leicestershire.

Last week, James Peck, of the National Farmers' Union, said criminal butchers were stripping farm animals across these counties of their meat for sale on the black market.

- Daily Mail