PARTS of rural Britain have become a ‘poachers’ paradise’ because of reductions in police manpower, a Somerset MP has claimed.

Conservative Ian Liddell-Grainger says that a disregard of rural crime by police forces has exposed livestock farmers to huge and unsustainable losses.

Now, he says, the Government must prioritise the countryside as it implements its pledge to increase police manpower.

Mr Liddell-Grainger, MP for largely rural Bridgwater and West Somerset, said he was shocked by figures revealing a near-20 per cent value rise in large-scale sheep thefts over the last two years.

The activities of rustling gangs now represent the second most costly crimes for the UK farming sector after agricultural vehicle and machinery theft.

READ MORE: Livestock theft has risen by nearly 20 per cent as rustlers raid farms

Mr Liddell-Grainger said the gradual withdrawal of police resources from the countryside was now leaving farmers unacceptably exposed to the activities of criminal gangs.

He said: “Rustlers are getting more and more brazen in their activities, their hauls are getting larger and they are even operating in daylight – all because they know the chances of them ever getting caught are close to zero.

“The days when police would organise observation patrols in areas where rustling was known to be taking place have long gone. It’s become a poachers’ paradise out there.

“But when you have got a single PC or a couple of PCSOs looking after an area of maybe 150 square miles, what else do you expect?”

Mr Liddell-Grainger said complaints about the lack of police in the countryside had continued to mount up in recent years.

“But every time the issue is raised – and despite all the evidence to the contrary – police forces insist they are not favouring town over country when it comes to allocating manpower.

“Farmers have pretty much given up hope of ever recovering stolen machinery or equipment; all they are offered is a crime number to pass on to their insurers.

“But machinery and equipment can be replaced. Quality breeding flocks built up over years cannot. And to learn of thefts on the scale we are now seeing indicates to me that parts of the countryside are teetering on the brink of lawlessness.

“And with poaching come the other issues – the level of animal cruelty that is involved and the safety of improperly-slaughtered meat that finds its way onto the black market.

“Farmers and others living in the countryside pay exactly the same amount of tax towards policing as do those in towns and cities. They rightly expect the same level of service – and we must hold the Government’s feet to the fire to ensure they will receive it in future.”