A GANG of farm raiders have been jailed for more than 16 years in total after a judge told them they had been a plague on the hard-pressed rural community.

Daniel Small and his two sons operated as a family business and drew in friends and neighbours to help them get rid of the Land Rovers, tractors and other farm machinery they stole.

The two sons, James and Daniel, carried out the 31 raids which included thefts from isolated farms, riding schools and even a cattery.

The gang stole £281,470 worth of vehicles and tools in a seven-month spree which only ended when they were tracked down by painstaking police work.

A judge at Exeter Crown Court told them that their thefts were organised and directed against a farming community in which many businesses are struggling to survive.

They normally struck overnight and the raids spanned an area from East Cornwall to Plymouth, North and West Devon, Teignbridge and the South Hams.

They started shortly after Daniel Small junior was cleared of taking part in a previous series of raids on rural businesses in May 2015. They carried on until a tracking device on a stolen quad bike led police to a traveller’s site near Bridgwater in January 2016.

The thefts included horse boxes, trailers, quad bikes, Land Rovers, and a rigid inflatable boat from Queen Anne’s Marina in Plymouth on Christmas Eve. The two sons even stole a pair of jet skis which they were seen trying to ride unsuccessfully at Wembury beach, near Plymouth.

The gang was caught following months of work by detectives who linked the movements of the stolen vehicles, as tracked by automatic number plate recognition devices on main roads with the phone activities of the two brothers.

The police team also used analysis of their phone use to put them at the scenes of many of the burglaries and show them in touch with their father as they moved the stolen goods.

A lot of the agricultural machinery ended up at a farm in Wembury owned by a friend of the family. This ensured it was not at Small’s scrapyard nearby when police went to look for it.

Daniel Small senior, aged 60, of Plympton, denied but was found guilty of two counts of conspiracy to steal. James Small, aged 36 and Daniel Small, aged 25, both from Plymouth, admitted the two counts of conspiracy to steal.

 Maurice Isaacs, aged 44, of Puriton, denied but was found guilty of one charge of conspiracy to steal.

Barry Stephens, aged 59, of South Barton Farm, Wembury, admitted handling some of the stolen machinery.

Daniel Small Senior was jailed for four years, James Small was jailed for five years, Daniel Small Senior for four years and eight months, and Isaacs for three years.

Stephens was jailed for ten months, suspended for a year, and four others, who played lesser parts, received non custodial sentences from Judge Erik Salomonsen at Exeter Crown Court.

The judge told the defendants: ‘The police inquiry identified the thefts as the work of an organised crime group. I have read an impact statement from a representative from the National Farmers Union Mutual insurance.

‘It describes how the loss of these vehicles and equipment at an optimum time can lead to large financial losses to the farming community as well as having a psychological and mental impact on farmers.

 ‘The NFU says in the last five years that claims for tractor thefts alone have been £32-million, not including cars and other machinery. That illustrates the significant impact these crimes have on rural communities at a time when farm incomes are depressed.

‘It goes without saying how important the farm economy is to Devon and Cornwall. Isolated farms are very vulnerable to a determined gang.’

 The judge praised the police for the combination of ‘good old fashioned’ legwork and the use of numberplate and phone cell site technology which cracked the case.

Mr Donald Tait, prosecuting, said the bulk of the raids were carried out by the Small brothers under the direction of their father and Stephens’ farm at Wembury was used to store some of the equipment.

The family moved on to carry out a string of thefts of Land Rovers, many of which were taken to Isaacs’s yard at Puriton. One was recovered when he was raided but the others are still missing.

He said other crimes included the burglary of a 79-year-old woman’s home in Lamerton, near Tavistock in which her bedroom was ransacked but nothing stolen.

Mr Tait said: ‘The Small family from Plymouth were the principal organisers of this crime wave. Daniel Small Senior did not often leave home but was in touch with the others by telephone.

‘They stole anything that was not nailed down. All this stealing caused a lot of heartache to a lot of people.

‘There was a lot of inconvenience where farmers were involved. It had an effect on their businesses. You can imagine the disruption when a livestock seller is unable to take their stock to market.’

 At his trial Daniel Small Senior claimed to be a born again Christian who had found God and turned his back on a life of crime. The jury were not convinced and found him guilty.

 Isaacs said a neighbour at the site was bringing the Land Rovers and it was nothing to do with him. He claimed to be at a steam fair in Dorchester when one vehicle was taken to Puriton

 Barristers representing the brothers said the thefts had not been a planned campaign but had come about when they had gone into the countryside looking for scrap metal.

Mr Tom Bradnock, for Stephens, said he was drawn into the scheme by his friend but knew of Small’s reputation and should have realised the goods he received were stolen. He said he was struggling to pay off huge debts at his small farm and is the sole carer for his elderly and infirm mother.

The alleged victims included Callisham Farm, Yelverton, loader, £15,000. January 2015; Haytown, Horrabridge, quad bike, £1,000, July 2015; Tor Town Farm, Moortown, Tavistock, Trailer, high lift, other tools. £19,000, August 2015 and Monks Cross, Callington, Defender and tools £10,000.