One of the many things that makes Scotland such a special place is our world-class wilderness. It's little wonder that last year, a Rough Guides poll voted Scotland as the Most Beautiful Country in the World, but all the jaw dropping scenery, craggy castles, white sand beaches (yes, we have them!) and amazing wildlife have to be protected, and those who would spoil the joys of our natural heritage must be brought to swift justice.
That's where Detective Inspector Alan Dron and the Rural Crime team come in. In this latest Q and A session, we pull on our wellies and find out about policing in the rural environment, talk about the emerging threat of organised crime in the countryside, and have a frank discussion about the ginger fringed menace of the Heiland Coo.
Name and rank for the record please?
Inspector Alan Dron.
Thanks for speaking with us, Alan. How long have you been with the police?
I’ve got twenty-six years’ service.
And how did you get into Rural Crime?
Fortunately by a lot of luck and being in the right place at the right time. I was born and raised in a rural environment and wildlife photography used to be my trade. As a police officer I was on the response team in Motherwell, so when this job came up, involving the rural environment and serious organised crime, I applied for it, interviewed, and was lucky to get the role. By day two on the job I was talking about pedigree cattle and bull semen, so going from response in Motherwell to that was certainly quite interesting.
So you come from a rural background? Where did you grow up?
Eaglesham, a wee village to the south of Glasgow, which was actually the first conservation village in Scotland.
Would you say there’s a most common type of rural crime?
Well, my boss has the chair for SPARC, which is the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime, which is the multi-agency group that is focussed on tackling criminality in the rural environment across Scotland. It’s been going for around two and half years, but just recently the group decided on seven key priorities, so what we tackle are without a doubt the most common reoccurring things, such as agricultural farm and plant theft, where we’ve dealt with cases such as thieves stealing farming machinery to rip ATM’s out of walls; livestock offences, whether it be worrying or theft; fuel theft, both commercial and domestic; equine theft; fly tipping, which is a huge issue; poaching, particularly hare coursing, and lastly heritage crime, because Scotland has six of the world UNESCO World Heritage sites within it. There are thousands of cultural and heritage sites which are within the rural environment on farmland, on Forestry Commission land or estates land.
Another key role just now is engagement, making sure we can support whoever wherever, so for example last week we were up in Bettyhill, up North near Thurso, we’ve been out to farms in places like Gartocharn, Powmill, down at Maybole, Dalkeith, Penicuik, and the Drummond Estate in Perthshire, so it really is trying to show that there’s a national remit to protecting, regardless of where you are. Also, my own view is that regardless of where someone is located geographically, they must get the same service as someone in the city would expect from the police and their partners. The whole thing with rural crime is it’s something that the police can’t do by itself, it must be done in conjunction with our partners, so everything we do is in collaboration, whether it’s the National Farmers Union of Scotland, Scottish Land and Estates, the Scottish Government and Forestry Commission and various other associations, who are all focussed on pulling the same way, and it’s starting to make a real inroad, which I find very very encouraging. I love it.
Do you collaborate with the Wildlife Crime team much? We interviewed Andy Mavin a while back and he also spoke about poaching.
Yes, we try and have a meeting every two or three weeks with the Wildlife Crime unit, just depending on availability, because Andy, like myself, is away here, there and everywhere. But in terms of poaching, I always like to find out if there’s anything which we can feed in. They have a totally different set of legislations and priorities compared to us, but most wildlife crime happens within the rural environment, so there’s always a crossover, particularly in terms of exchanging information.
Is it true that rural crime is affected by the changing of the seasons?
There are certain things that are more season-oriented, like when the harvest stops, there’s a lot of hare coursing, quite often done by people who’ll travel great distances to do it, and it’s an ever increasing problem. Two recent perpetrators came from south of the border, one from Barrow-in-Furness and two vehicles that had come up from North Yorkshire. But unfortunately, crime is occurring on a daily basis. Every day of every month of every year, there’s always rural crime going on, and a lot of that is linked to organised criminality.
Can you tell us more about that? Gangs in the countryside?
In my role, the theft of farm machinery and agricultural plants is big money. Serious organised criminality have been buying farms up, but not to farm it in the conventional way, because if you’re in the rural environment, there’s no CCTV, less people coming and going who’d maybe see what you’re up to. And also there’s the distance factor; there aren’t as many cops in rural areas as there are in the cities, which makes it a lot easier for a criminal to go about their business. This is what we’re trying to change. For me, the main thing where SPARC was given a real boost this year was in July, when the first ever Rural Crime Strategy for the UK was published by the National Police Chief’s Council. Now this has elevated rural crime and how we tackle it, and how we approach the most vulnerable in society with these links to organised criminality moving in tenfold. It’s been the catalyst to really up on the agenda rural crime, making sure the 13 divisions take it seriously.
So did you see that clip on Twitter a while back with the Police Scotland cop getting chased by the cow?
Absolutely. That one with the cow saying “Mooooove over…”, “pull the udder one”, yep, heard them all…
Hi-larious. He was just trying to get the cow back into its field, right?
Yes, and off the road obviously, in case a road user hit it. Cattle in particular will chase whoever goes near them, and they can be dangerous, particularly if they’ve got a calf at foot. So it’s a classic example of don’t wander into a field if it’s full of cattle, particularly if they have calves, because you will need to run. The only thing you’ve got to hope is that you can outrun them, because they will do you damage.
I’ve heard cows kill more people every year than sharks.
Absolutely, it’s a fact. In this country they also kill and injure more people than dogs.
Yep. Highland cows particularly, with the nice big sharp horns.
I can imagine tourists must be going up to them all the time looking for selfies.
There was an incident three weeks ago on the North Coast 500 scenic route, where a farmer had to run rather quickly to save a Japanese tourist family that had stopped their car and got out to take selfies with these lovely Highland cattle that had sat down in the middle of the road. It was only when one of them started to get up and started moving aggressively towards the family that they suddenly realised they’re maybe not so friendly.
I suppose the rural environment is one of the main things that attracts people to Scotland, so it has to be looked after.
94% of Scotland is designated rural, whether that be accessible or inaccessible, and the Scottish Government talk about come to Scotland for the hills, the heather and the castles. My remit is everything that’s hills and heather, the rural environment, and I also have responsibility for heritage crime, so that’s all the castles. We also look after the marine environment, places like Scappa Flow, so it’s a very broad remit, but a very key one as you say, because all that links into tourism, protecting tourism, protecting the brand of Scotland, making sure tourists feel safe in Scotland, and then… whisky. One of the biggest exports we have, is based in the rural environment. It needs the clear waters, it needs good barley, it needs all these ingredients to make sure we get a good product.
What are the main challenges a rural officer might face that probably wouldn’t come up for a city-based cop?
A lot of it’s down to practicalities and resources, because the rural policing teams are covering large areas. For example, if there’s a situation where they require assistance, they can’t get that half as quick as an officer in Glasgow, Stirling or Edinburgh. But their knowledge is incredibly vast, because they’re dealing with everything from livestock offences to deer poaching to fatal road crashes to firearms offences, because in the rural community there are a lot more firearms in people’s houses, which again is something organised crime groups are well aware of. They’re vulnerable communities, so the officers who are more rural based have to have a lot of common sense and have to deploy a fair bit of sense of humour. Above all, they’re very knowledgeable and they know their area, which is key.
So it’s a bonus if you want to get into rural policing if you come from that kind of background?
It certainly helps. It’s about having an understanding, and credibility is key, so therefore if you know what you’re talking about, if you know the animals and land of the rural environment, it’s all to the better. And we’re very fortunate that there are so many officers with a passion for the countryside, like farmer’s sons and daughters, those who’ve worked with the Forestry Commission, or maybe those who just go up the hills and enjoy the environment on their days off. They understand and appreciate the vulnerability of it.
Thanks very much for speaking to us, Alan. You're free to go.
If you'd like to know more about Rural Crime and what can be done to prevent it, click here to access information on our Rural Crime Keep Safe page.