“UNDER siege” farmers are digging moats and fortifying their land with lasers to fend off criminals.

Rural crime is at a seven-year high and the South East is one of the worst-affected regions, a new report has shown.

The findings by insurance company National Farmers Union (NFU) Mutual revealed the top three items stolen by thieves in the area last year were tools, quad bikes and farm machinery.

The report found the South-East spent more £8 million tackling a 12 per cent rise in countryside crime in 2018.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Caroline Harriet, chairwoman of the West Sussex NFU. She represents farmers and runs Broomhurst Farm in Arundel.

She said: “Farmers have installed electric gates, CCTV, trenches and even motion-sensitive lasers – we’ve basically had to turn our farms into fortresses. Many of us are so besieged we feel like we can’t leave our land.

“There’s definitely been a spike in rural crime in West Sussex,” she said.

Caroline said common problems faced by farmers include the theft of diesel and expensive GPS devices, flytipping, unlicensed camping, hare coursing, poaching and livestock worrying.

She has been the victim of rural crime herself. “One wintry night, we had quad bikes stolen from a padlocked shed. The thieves just cut the lock,” she said.

“You can imagine what the problem is. Farms are isolated, and there’s rarely a visible police presence. Your land is accessible over a large area and you can’t be everywhere. We’re easy targets for criminals, especially if we don’t take action to protect ourselves.”

NFU Mutual recommends installing fences, security lighting and barricaded strong rooms for expensive kit. The insurers also suggest “keeping dogs or geese to act as an early warning system”.

Caroline said an increasingly popular technique is to dig a perimeter ditch around a farm.

She said: “You form a kind of moat around your land to stop vehicles getting in and making off with valuables.

“But you’ve got to get in yourself somehow – there’s no way we can keep criminals out completely.”

Sussex Police explained: “Rural crime is an issue for large areas of the country, but it tends to go unreported. It can impact on insurance premiums, food prices and damage local communities.”

The force encourages people to report rural crimes by calling 101 or using the NFU’s rural crime line on 0800 783 0137.