UPDATED 12 noon: ILLEGAL hunting fines could double and a victim’s geographical isolation carry greater weight in sentencing as government tries to crack-down on stock thieves, trespassers, and poachers.
Nearly 18 months since ordering a former top cop to review rural crime in NSW – and a year since said review was completed – Police Minister Troy Grant unveiled government’s plan to supercharge trespass laws and boost fines for illegal hunting in Dubbo this morning.
The review lays bare the “deep sense of anger and frustration” over crime in rural areas, as well as despair over perceived police inaction, and inadequate penalties “if indeed the matter gets to court”.
It also said many regional victims appeared resigned to crimes not being dealt with, leading to a drop in reporting, poor understanding of the law, and a belief among landholders it is up to them “to take matters into their own hands”.
Former assistant commissioner Stephen Bradshaw’s review also says the state’s 34 Rural Crime Investigators were being sequestered for other duties – despite being created and resourced specifically for the purpose of rural crime.
In response to Mr Bradshaw’s 22 recommendations, government has proposed a new aggravated trespass offence for trespass crimes that include an enhanced biosecurity risk, an intent to engage in stock theft, or if there is hunting equipment present.
Rural crime – particularly rustling – has been a big problem for farmers amid high livestock prices.
Stock theft has continued unabated in NSW this year with 1,717 cattle reported stolen between January and May, and 8,095 sheep – more than $2 million worth based on market conditions.
In the year to March 2017 there were 479 incidents of stock theft.
Of the 73 local government areas with three or more incidents, Gosford was the only one that could pass as a metro area. The worst hit were Inverell, Palerang, Upper Hunter, Warrumbungle, Tenterfield, Wagga Wagga and Guyra - all well in the bush.
The New England Rural Crime Unit told the Inverell Times this month it was investigating the theft of 30 merino ewes from the Elsmore area - the second lot of sheep to have been stolen this year from the property.
Mr Bradshaw recommended that a compulsory requirement to ear mark all stock over the age of 6 months, on the property on which they were bred, should be introduced.
Meanwhile government also announced it will push for police to have ‘increased flexibility’ to seize vehicles connected with a game hunting offence, and will push to double of the maximum penalty for illegal hunting on private land from $1,100 to $2,200.
Just this weekend Moree farmer Oscar Pearce reported ‘pig chasers’ had trespassed and driven over his chickpeas while he was off-property.
Spend all Sunday bringing your own tractor to help a local sporting event: while away pig-chaser trespasser drives on chickpeas.— Oscar (@Oscarthefarmer) August 20, 2017
Mr Bradshaw’s report illegal hunting was the only rural crime that has recorded consecutive rises over the past five years, with incidents on average increasing by around 29 per cent per year.
The majority of these illegal hunting incidents involve the hunting of pigs with dogs, and in some instances, the hunting of both feral and native animals using a bow and arrow, Mr Bradshaw said.
“It is likely that these offences are often undetected or are underreported, so the true incidence is likely to be significantly higher,” he said.
Mr Grant said a victim’s geographical isolation could be mentioned specifically as an aggravating factor during sentencing.
Other measures government will push for include:
- The ability to apply to the Local Court for a forced muster order, which will assist victims of stock theft;
- A deeming provision that will help to provide certainty of ownership to those who harvest rangeland goats for commercial gain
Queensland introduced forced muster orders in 2014.
Their order forces neighbours to round up animals belonging to someone else that may have strayed onto their property, as a result of broken fences.
Police limitations laid bare
Mr Bradshaw also recommended the establishment of a standalone ‘Stock Squad’, possibly within State Crime Command, reporting through to an Assistant Commissioner of Police and with a rank structure and dedicated intelligence analysts, providing for opportunities for promotion and additional training.
He highlighted several limitations currently facing rural police and victims of rural crime.
“Police stations are not staffed 24 hours and it may take many hours to receive a visit from a police officer, if indeed a police officer attends at all,” Mr Bradshaw wrote.
Victims have reported frustration at having calls relayed through to larger stations, outside their local community, or being told to simply ring Policelink or Crime Stoppers
“The current structure, where Rural Crime Investigators are attached to local area commands, does not appear to have delivered the intended results. It appears that RCIs are not solely tasked on rural crime, even though these 33 positions were specifically created and resourced for this purpose.
“Victims have reported frustration at having calls relayed through to larger stations, outside their local community, or being told to simply ring Policelink or Crime Stoppers.”
He said a lack of action led to a victim’s apathy setting in.
“Then crime data for these offences remains low, RCIs are tasked with other matters and the issues remain unaddressed.
“Farmers also then begin to feel like it is left to them to protect their properties, confront trespassers and shoot hunting dogs.”
Mr Bradshaw said key to addressing stock theft, rural trespass and illegal hunting was ensuring police in rural and remote areas were engaged with their communities and properly tasked and resourced
“For a number of years, this does not appear to have been the case, most likely since police retreated to ‘core business’ and relinquished various extraneous duties undertaken on behalf of other government agencies which gave them regular contact with their communities.”
A plan 18 months in the making
This morning’s announcement caps a process launched 18 months ago by Police Minister – and Deputy Premier at the time – Troy Grant.
Mr Grant agreed the Bradshaw Review highlighted a number of common concerns amongst victims, including that the costs associated with rural crime are often not reflected in the penalties delivered by the courts, as well as deficiencies in the law regarding trespass.
In February 2016 Mr Grant tasked former Dubbo cop Stephen Bradshaw with travelling the western regions – including meetings of stakeholders at Orange, Peak Hill, Broken Hill, Cobar, Ivanhoe, Wilcannia, Nyngan, Bourke, Brewarrina, Coonamble, Pilliga, Narrabri and Oberon, to hear community concerns on rural crime and give recommendations to shape reforms.
During his time on the road with Barwon MP Kevin Humphries, Mr Bradshaw said he had been horrified by stories told about intimidation by illegal hunters, brazen thieves, property damage, and emotional stress.
He said he had also heard stories about hunting dogs killing animals on the outskirts of towns, drones casing properties and startling livestock, and criminals using travelling stock routes, mail roads, and gazetted roads to illegally hunt for pigs.
“Every meeting seemed to add a new issue – but in the main the issues raised were stock theft, stock ID, rural trespass – especially by (illegal) pig hunters and goat harvesters - and the response from police,” he said.
Mr Bradshaw delivered the report in June last year. Government has been working on the reforms since.
Last August government announced it would be appointing extra deputy commissioners to adapt to new policing challenges – including a new top cop for rural matters.
That man was Gary Worboys, former Assistant Commissioner for Southern NSW.
He started his role in May.
Mr Grant said the entire process was the first time government had looked at structure and resourcing to address rural crime since he started in the police force in 1988.
“The unique features and challenges of crime in rural and regional areas demands a tailored response,” Mr Grant said.
“We must ensure that the police respond to reports of crime in a timely fashion and have the necessary skills and knowledge of their local communities to hold those responsible for these crimes to account.
The boiling point?
Rural crime arguably reached a boiling point at the NSW Farmers conference in July 2016.
President Derek Schoen told delegates his first 12 months at the helm had been inundated with reports of trespass, property and stock theft, and illegal hunting across the state – an observation that was prompted by a passionate policy debate that took aim at ongoing rural crime issues.
The term aggravated trespass had already been introduced to the NSW legal vocabulary via government’s controversial Inclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Amendment Bill earlier that year. But NSW Farmers said the laws did not provide specific protection for farmers.
Aggravated trespass applies to those creating a serious safety risk or interfering with business operations during unauthorised entry to private property, and carries a $5500 fine.
NSW Farmers said the penalties for rural trespass remained too soft, and demanded police be given broader powers to inspect and confiscate dogs, weapons, and vehicles from suspected illegal hunters.
Delegates at the 2016 conference also flagged a need for more police on country roads, and at rural stations.
Farmers are generally encouraged to install cameras, report crimes as soon as they discover them and report or capture any evidence available to them.
Mr Bradshaw said, however, changes were needed to the livestock system.
“The current system under which stock is identified, transferred and sold is primarily geared towards managing biosecurity risks and tracing stock and not protecting farmers against stock theft.
“It is recommended that a compulsory requirement to ear mark all stock over the age of 6 months, on the property on which they were bred, should be introduced.”