Irish Terrorists Suspected in Tractor Thefts

A crime wave is sweeping Somerset's green and pleasant land. For hundreds of years the southwestern county has been known for it's beautiful rolling hills and it's farming community.

But now it's involved in a plot authorities believe might be linked to terrorists. The crime? Tractor theft.

"If I was a thief I think I'd go for something smaller," said local farmer Alistair House. "It's mind-boggling to me."

But from the thieves' perspective, the thefts do make sense: Tractors cost up to $200,000 a pop.

Michael Burdge, who sells tractors, observed that it's easy money.

"The numbers being stolen are going up and up," he said. "There's more money in stealing tractors than drugs."


That's not quite true, but $2 million worth of farm equipment is disappearing every week in Britain.

Officer Richard Goddard, of the Gloucestershire Constabulary, is leading the counterattack, code named Operation Mermaid.

His leading suspects: Irish terrorists at a loose end.

"There is certainly a terrorist link now," Goddard said. "Since The Troubles have ceased over in Northern Ireland, there's people who are diversifying."

Investigator Tim Purbrick of The National Plant and Equipment Register, a company that helps people recover stolen equipment and machinery, is diversifying: from tracking stolen paintings, to tracking stolen tractors before they're shipped as far afield as Australia.

"When it crosses an international border, no one is really looking out for tractors … in the same way they might be searching a vehicle for a Picasso or a Monet," he said.

And tractors are easier to steal.

One night, shortly after midnight, thieves strolled into the Somerset farmyard and drove away across the fields in a $90,000 tractor. There are now security cameras around the yard, but there's a limit to what a farmer can do.

Believe it or not, one key fits into any John Deere tractor. Once you get used to it, tractors are pretty easy to drive — and very hard to identify. All Ford tractors are solid blue and every John Deere tractor is green.

"Perhaps we should be painting them with pink spots," House joked. "Or Monet's poppies, or something from Picasso's blue period."