THINK crime and you picture a gritty urban setting, perhaps a darkened street or alleyway and a gang of threatening looking hoodies.

But some crime and even the scourge of gangs can be just as rife in the seemingly tranquil, green and pleasant countryside.

Eighty-five per cent of Hampshire is rural – and the latest figures reveal crime is hitting some of the county’s countryside communities harder than other parts of the UK.

Statistics provided to the Daily Echo by rural insurance firm NFU Mutual show a surge in the cost of crime.

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Largely this is because of criminals from outside the county who are believed to export stolen machinery abroad.

Its latest figures show claims of £970,000 in 2013 shoot up to £1.7million last year – a 75 per cent increase.

And all this allThis comes as Hampshire Constabulary makes its worst ever cuts.

The force has already made savings of £55m in recent years and is looking to slash £25m off its budget over the next two years. It will lose 1,000 officers by 2017, inevitably making numbers even thinner on the ground in remote areas.

Tim Price, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, said: “Despite rural crime levels falling nationally, in Hampshire the figures have, unfortunately, gone up.

“The rise seems to be driven primarily by farm theft and we will be issuing our full rural crime survey 2015 in August, which will hopefully give some further insight into this trend.

“We would urge communities to remain vigilant and work together to protect each other’s properties and also to think security measures around their farms and properties.

“Rural criminals can be beaten through concerted action.”

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One farmer David Powell, from Lockerly,  (above) in the Test Valley, had his machinery stolen three times in as many years, totalling well over £10,000 in ten years.

Test Valley Farm Watch coordinator Ruth Harper-Adams said there has been an increase in thefts from agricultural premises.

She said: “We can safely say in the last six to 12 months there has been an increase. Sometimes I think there’s more crime in the countryside than in the town.

“This has been in two different areas. One is expensive machinery like quad bikes up to tractors.

“We’ve also seen an increase in thefts of smaller scale items – equipment from anything from hand tools to power tools.

“There are probably more opportunity thefts of things like livestock troughs, electric fences or sheering tools. But although they are not expensive, the fact they have been stolen mean that animals can be without water or a fence.”

While thieves can be opportunistic, striking at anytime, Mrs Harper-Adams said gangs were hitting farms late at night and often choosing harsh weather to mask any sounds.

She said: “There has definitely been an increase in organised crime. They will target a couple of evenings and nights and steal expensive equipment.”

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It is thought stolen tractors and machinery are exported out of south coast ports such as Portsmouth and Southampton and destined for eastern Europe.

To thwart thieves, vehicles and machinery from a dozen farms across the Test Valley are being marked with the Cesar Datatag system that covers farm machines with thousands of micro dots.

Police and customs officers have scanners which can detect the dots which tell them who the vehicle belongs to.

But it’s not just farmers falling victim to villains. Cars parked in beauty spots are being targeted too.

This is especially so in the New Forest, where crime has shot up. Here there have been 503 reported rural crimes since 2012 – 139 in 2012, 184 in 2013 and 180 in 2014.

Earlier this year, a father-and-son gang was jailed for breaking into cars in the most unlikely of beauty spots.

They would drive out from Salisbury and targeted Martin Down Nature Reserve in Lymington, Bramble Hill in Lyndhurst, a forest car park in Fritham and the National Trust common of Hale Purlieu, as well as Lymington and Fordingbridge.

Among £25,000 worth of items stolen were handbags, bag packs and wallets – with bank cards used after bits of paper were found revealing pin codes.

Dad Wilfred Wells and his three sons Lenny, Nicky and Edward were jailed for 90 offences for a total of 13-and-a-half years.

Overall, there have been 500 thefts from vehicles in the county’s countryside in the past three years.

This kind of crime has prompted the police to launch a blitz on rural crime called Operation Falcon.

Strategic rural policing inspector Louise Hubble said: “Operations since March 2015 have targeted theft from motor vehicle in beauty spot car parks, non-dwelling burglaries from rural premises and plant theft.

“Ongoing operations are also planned for the rest of the year to provide a focus on enforcement and prevention of crime in rural areas.

“Through the use of a range of tactics available to us, we aim to make the rural communities of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight a hostile place for offenders.”

The clampdown also supports the police and crime commissioner Simon Hayes’ rural policing strategy, which was designed as part of his vow to close the gap between rural and urban solved crime rates.

Mr Hayes has promised to reduce by 50 per cent the gap in solved crime rates that currently exists between rural and non-rural beats.

He said: “I have been able to tackle the inequality that exists between victim satisfaction and crime rates in rural and urban communities to deliver on my commitment to protect people and places in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

“The most recent survey on victim satisfaction shows that satisfaction among victims of rural crime is greater than victims of crime in urban communities.

“As a result of the rural crime strategy, police officers and staff have undertaken training to help improve their knowledge of rural related issues.

“This, combined with changes made to operational policing that ensure policing is at the heart of local communities, has significantly improved confidence in police, but more remains to be done.

“I am now in a much stronger position to hold the chief constable to account, scrutinise the constabulary’s performance, influence the allocation of resources to help meet community needs and priorities, and encourage greater collaboration with partners such as the National Farmers Union, the Countryside Alliance, Neighbourhood Watch and volunteers involved with Community Speedwatch.”

Last year, the commissioner ran a mapping project with neighbourhood police officers, the National Farmers Union (NFU), the Countryside Alliance (CLA) and using data from the Rural Payments Agency (RPA).

As a result of this project, when people in rural areas contact the police to report an incident, the call taker is better placed to identify where crimes are taking place and the likely target, and to deploy officers to deal with it quicker.