Trespassing and theft – the ugly side to land access
‘The goodwill of private landowners allows the people of Ireland to enjoy access to many areas for outdoor recreation’ according to the recently published National Outdoor Recreation Strategy (NORS). It goes on to say that through the efforts of many community groups working with local farmers, new opportunities for access to trails and green spaces are being developed all the time.
This positive rural-news story came a few days before the annual general meeting of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA), which heard of a much uglier side to land access across the Irish countryside.
In addition to complaints about gardaí failing to return calls, the farmer gathering heard stories of intimidation and threatening behaviour aimed at them from some members of the public who had no permission to be on their land, while issues relating to empty rural garda stations, and a lack of gardaí on the beat were also raised, as well as the growing scourge of livestock theft.
You could hear a pin drop in the room of more than 200 farmers as Mary Kissane shared the story of how five of her cows were stolen from her farm in Tarbert, north Kerry, at the end of November. The 73-year-old who lost her husband earlier in 2022, told the room: “We got a phone call at five past 11 [at night] to tell us that the cows were out on the road, and our neighbour had put them in. We went over the next morning and there was five missing,” she said. Neighbours helped to search for the cows, but they were nowhere to be found, and at 1.10pm, she said her son rang the guards.
“They [gardaí] were out at another case, and they came to Tarbert at six o’clock that evening. Now I have locks on gates, locks on everything, what can I do? I don’t think I will get back my cows, I have very little hope. Every day that goes, it is getting less and less [likely].”
This is just one of several cases of livestock theft reported in recent months with farmers in Cork, Kilkenny, Roscommon and Laois on the receiving end of this type of criminal behaviour.
Rural crime and trespassing on land are not new phenomena, but this AGM item was significant enough for assistant garda commissioner, Paula Hilman and chief superintendent Padraic Jones of the Garda National Community Engagement Bureau to attend the meeting. There, they spoke of the recently launched Rural Safety Plan 2022-2024; Operation Thor, which targets organised crime gangs; the role and significance of community policing; and the importance of reporting crime, even if there is a feeling that it is not going to make a difference.
“We can only put those operations in place and have a meaningful outcome once we have engagement from yourselves, the eyes and ears of the public,” said chief superintendent Jones. “Because, unfortunately, we don’t have the resources to have a garda in every farmyard or on every street, so we rely on the public hugely in preventing, and also detecting some of these crimes,” he added.
But what emerged, as farmers shared their stories, was that the two things the chief superintendent focused on above, caused much of the farmers’ frustration: insufficient numbers of gardaí in rural towns and villages; and a belief that reporting rural crime doesn’t yield results, or even a call back from the gardaí in some instances.
"I am still waiting for a response to six phone calls I made last July"
One farmer said an encounter with threatening and abusive trespassers on his land led him to call the gardaí, only to receive a call back four-and-a-half hours later. “If you are outside in your own field and you are confronted by a gang of six or seven individuals, it is a very lonely place. And if we make a 999 call, I think we should be able to expect a very quick response, but this is not what we are getting. I am still waiting for a response to six phone calls I made last July.”
‘Someone will get hurt’
This, he said, was not just a local issue. “I raised this at a national council meeting and very quickly I realised that this was a national issue, of trespassers coming onto our lands being threatening and abusive with a total disregard for the fact they are on private property.”
The same farmer said that on the morning of the AGM, he received a call from a farmer friend of his who told him that ‘they come down through the farmyard now and they give him the two fingers when he is inside in his kitchen, as they pass his window’.
“This is getting worse, it is getting to a point where someone will get hurt or killed, be it a farmer or a trespasser, and nobody wants to see that. We want more prompt action from the gardaí if a 999 call is made, I think as taxpayers and citizens, it is our right that if I make a 999 call, that there will be help on the way.”
A Waterford-based farmer raised the issue of empty rural garda stations, which, in his case, means there are no gardaí within 17 miles of his house. “We have two local stations and there is no one in them,” he said. And he referenced the disconnect that exists between rural communities and the gardaí, when the local stations are no longer operational. “You are made to feel like more of a criminal than the person you are complaining about [when you ring the urban stations]. Gardaí in these stations need to cop themselves on, and I make no apology for saying that,” he said.
Farmers sought advice on ‘what force’ they could use if they are being threatened, with one attendee asking if a farmer’s home was broken into, did they have the right ‘to blow them back out the front door’ with a legally held shotgun?
The main message that the garda representatives stressed throughout the meeting was the need to and importance of reporting all crime and incidents of trespassing and intimidation – and not to engage with trespassers if you feel under threat.
“In terms of trespass, we would encourage you not to engage with people on the land if you feel you are outnumbered or if you feel there is a threat. That is when we encourage that reporting takes place immediately,” the chief superintendent said.
“And we would encourage you to be aware of the evidence around you in relation to those people, how they got on to your land or your farm, for example, if we have a car registration or a description of individuals, that can be very helpful. If we are not in a position to respond immediately, then we would have some evidence to commence inquiries.” He explained that although gardaí have power of arrest for trespass – broadly speaking – they must find the trespassers in the act at the time. “I want the message to go out that we should report at all times, because that allows us to develop information and awareness and to put in place plans to deter that [behaviour]. If you think that you have been let down by the garda response, I would point you to our crime prevention officers who are our network of people on the ground, their contact details are on the garda website,” the chief superintendent stated. He told the gathering that where there have been pockets of illegal activity and really good community engagement, it has helped the gardaí make good progress.
This was backed up by the assistant commissioner who said: “If there is one message that you take away, it is that you report and encourage people to report. We do what is called information-led policing, we put ‘resource to risk’ and we use data to employ our resource, so if people aren’t reporting, then it is not coming up on our Pulse system.”
A call for crime-prevention meetings to take place around the country in 2023 was met with a commitment from the garda representatives to deliver on that.
“We will liaise with our crime-prevention officers and we can have local events like this, and we can do that over the first six months of 2023,” said the assistant commissioner.
“We don’t have all the answers, but we will listen and do our utmost best at national and local levels,” she said.
ICMSA president, Pat McCormack said: “Together we can do a significant amount to reduce and, over time, to eradicate it [rural crime]. Some of the key messages, we need to report, and yee [gardaí] need to respond.”