"Watch out, there's a thief about" is a warning that's been issued nationally for decades. These days, it may be more a case of "there's organised crime about" as container-loads of valuable equipment and machinery are lifted from sites across the UK. Last year seemed to mark a new high in reports of theft from sports clubs.
Although figures on the value of stolen items are extremely difficult to establish, estimates mostly run into millions, if not tens of millions of pounds annually, so the problem is one of increasing concern, especially to hard-pressed smaller clubs already walking a knife-edge of financial viability.
Golf appears to be hard hit, if recent spates of theft are any yardstick. Thieves targeted more than forty clubs in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, Cumbria and Northumberland late last year, targeting golf equipment stored in locker rooms, but valuable turf machinery and vehicles are also likely to be seen as fair game.
Clearly, the message for managers and staff alike is to be aware of security across the entire site and to be alert to anything suspicious, but that's easier said than done.
'Intelligence' is a key element of security, notes by Martyn Senior, secretary of Hesketh Golf Club, in Southport: "The difficulty for all of us is that communication between clubs is often very poor or even nonexistent.
We suffer a theft and report it to the police, submit the insurance claim if appropriate and move on. Communication within the police force is arguably little better."
Senior though has acted in a bid to improve links. "For some years now, I have had a group email set up which, at the click of a button, sends to all the local clubs in my area, plus the local police in Merseyside and Lancashire, details and CCTV pictures of any incidents."
Recent meetings in the north-west of the Golf Club Managers Association (GCMA), of which Senior is a member, have revealed that "a surprising number of clubs had been hit by these perpetrators and that some knew of other clubs in their own vicinity," he adds.
"The Lancashire Police response has been excellent and they have formed a target team to try to track down these criminals," adds Senior. "They too have suffered the communication problem in trying to identify the clubs involved, but are gradually piecing it together."
"I strongly believe we would all benefit by setting up group emails to local clubs and police forces, where possible overlapping so the information could be passed on quickly across the country. Better to be told twice than not at all."
Golfwatch schemes in the South-east, notably in and around Croydon, have proved successful at nabbing offenders thanks, in part, to fast responses from clubs in alerting others in the group of any suspicious behaviour or unidentified cars on site and by working closely with community police officers.
"Golf club security depends on location," says Alex Taylor, newly installed secretary of Salisbury & South Wilts Golf Club. "Out of town courses are at less risk from juvenile theft because, for them, it's a long way from the centre. But, because they are out of the way, fewer people live nearby, so the risk is still there from other types of theft."
Security can be heightened by having a permanent presence on site, Taylor explains. "The flat above our clubhouse is rented by the club captain. That not only brings in extra income but also enables the clubhouse to be manned round the clock."
As a former police officer, Taylor is more aware of crime prevention than most.
"The aim is to provide security measures that match the value of equipment and facilities you have on site," he argues. "But, in truth, there is little you can do to prevent break-ins if thieves are determined to gain access."
Taylor's checklist for clubs includes ensuring good lighting levels around the course and to tighten security of clubhouse provision that is known to house cash, equipment and any machinery. And he urges communication with the crime prevention officer to initiate and maintain a dialogue.
Security does not have to be intrusive though, Taylor stresses. The entrance to Salisbury's clubhouse has no entrance code to allow access, he reveals. Visitors simply open the door and walk in. "But, everything changes from then on and security measures come into play," he explains.
The equipment compound near the machinery shed (which is of solid steel construction) is due to be covered soon, says Taylor. "At the moment, the grounds team store various pieces of older equipment there. It has a low metal perimeter fence and lockable gate, but they'll soon be able to store these inside the new shed to give greater security as well as protection from the weather."
Taylor admits that the club has suffered "occasional" incidences of theft. "They may or may not be connected with the semi-permanent site for travellers nearby," he says guardedly, but it's hard to prove anything. In any case, CCTV cameras positioned around the clubhouse have deterred thieves pretty well."
When questioned recently, machinery and equipment manufacturers said they usually do not fit anti-theft devices as standard, although these can be retro-fitted, and they suggest that buyers speak to their local dealer for help on this.
Some brands carry two registration numbers, one visible, the other concealed, to aid identification but, by and large, the purchaser carries the onus of responsibility to protect what is theirs.
A battery isolation unit fitted in certain New Holland tractors, allowing it to be disconnected from the ignition, although "a basic system" is "at least a start", says product specialist Alan Hawes, who reports that he has been phoned occasionally by police identifying stolen items from their serial numbers, so that kind of security measure can sometimes bear fruit.
"A consignment of machinery stolen last year from a club was found by police in Dover, waiting to board a Channel ferry," he reports.
Some leading manufacturers are coming to the aid of the army of anxious grounds professionals and sports club managers however, by offering deterrents to fit to equipment, vehicles and machinery.
We feature some examples here, although more may surface by part two of this focus on security and theft, and we will hope to feature them then.
Some clubs are more vulnerable and prone to attack than others, whether by organised crime or opportunists. Thieves may not relish the prospects of breaching the ramparts of such bastions as Stamford Bridge, the Emirates Stadium or Old Trafford, but presented with an open ground and a solitary shed standing forlornly in a corner, they probably fancy their chances a little more.
Even when you have taken all reasonable measures to secure machinery such as mowers, determined thieves know otherwise. Grass cutting machinery is arguably the one 'can't do without item' for any local club, so it's wise to guard the 'Crown Jewels' securely.
A west Derby bowls club thought it had done just that, until thieves struck. The club, which does not wish to be identified, kept their prized Dennis FT510 and suite of cassettes in a strong steel container fitted with a security padlock and shields to protect it, as you would expect most clubs to do. But, criminals cut though the ½" thick metal either side of the lock and stole both the machine and the cassettes.
And it didn't end there. The club's insurance company then tried to replace the mower with a lower standard machine. Fortunately, the thieves left a couple of cassettes behind and the club argued the case for a like-for-like replacement.
The committee decided enough was enough and, apart from changing the security arrangements of the container, looked into other measures, deciding to buy a Mowersafe from Dennis's sister company Howardson Engineering Ltd.
Club vice president Dave Pollard explained: "Purchasing the deterrent has given serious peace of mind to club members and has demonstrated to the insurance company that we are taking a pro-active responsibility in protecting our insured assets."
"Furthermore, it has replaced the need for an alarm system, and the associated ongoing costs. We didn't want members being called out at night and being confronted by criminals".
The rise in theft is not hard to explain, says Dennis Mowers' Robert Jack. "When scrap went down, mower crime went up. Many are stolen to order, ending up in containers bound for overseas countries."
"We tend to offer the Mowersafe when we sell machines. It will certainly slow down thieves and make them think twice. You'd need the likes of an angle grinder to have a chance of stealing a machine protected in this way," he adds.
Aside from the rise in organised crime, the opportunists are trying their luck. In East London, a shed full of equipment such as brush-cutters, chainsaws and hand mowers was stolen from a public facility over a weekend recently.
Insurance surely covers such crime but a source told Pitchcare that many local authorities were not covered because this kind of theft was deemed uninsurable. "A shed sited on the edge of a sportsground is seen as an easy target for thieves and insurers are not keen to cover that kind of risk," he said.
The turfcare sector has its own version of 'the Denver boot' to deter thieves. The E-Z-GO Wheel Lock seeks to protect everything from trailers, ATVs and golf buggies to cars and motorcycles. A ratchet allows the device to fit many sorts and sizes of wheel and the hardened steel construction resists cutting, says turfcare equipment manufacturer Ransomes Jacobsen, which supplies it via its dealer network.
With anti-pick lock and rubber-coated arms to protect wheel finishes, the device comes with three keys, one with an LED light. Ransomes Jacobsen items are also fitted with a unique ignition key, which heightens security, in contrast to some makes where "one key fits all".
Whilst groundsmen may not be taken with the notion of joyriding turf machinery, security on golf buggies is stepping up to combat the growing practice by juveniles gaining access to them for a spin round the course before ditching them in the nearest lake.
A new golf car fleet management system, from Club Car, is now available in the UK and is already aiding sites in the US, where it first appeared.
The ability to track equipment and machinery via GPS is set to become the next big advance in securing clubs' valuable assets and soon insurers may insist on such levels of monitoring to provide cover.
This year, for example, will see a GPS fitted as standard to one of Husqvarna's Automower range of robotic mowers. "The 260 ACX can be programmed to be stored or work within a predetermined area," says Gary Philpott, Husqvarna UK's aftersales manager. "If it is taken out of that area, the unit sends a text message alerting the club. If it is lifted up, it emits an audible warning."
"The fear of theft is greater than the incidence of it," he believes but peace of mind often counts for a lot, he adds.
"In any case," he goes on," the mower's docking station is protected by its own PIN code. Whoever has taken the mower will need to verify that number. Without doing that, the machine is of no value - and we hold a global database of what's been stolen."
Security tracking is coming of age now as sophisticated methods of keeping tabs on machinery and equipment start to appear. After five years' development, the new custom-programmed TRAAKiT GPS device is having a big impact among equipment hirers and in the construction and transport sectors.
The company that developed it, Radaw, is researching the clubs and sportsgrounds sector to introduce a similar device. "A grounds contractor has been trialling it for us," says Radaw director Tim Young and, after a few months use, decided to buy a couple of units."
"The device can be fitted to everything from diggers and tractors to lorries and dumpers. The sports sector is certainly a major application for it, we believe. Equipment theft is one of the biggest problems facing British businesses."
Taking up the footprint of a credit card and weighing 125gm, the device can be attached to most pieces of equipment or vehicles at most locations (in a machinery shed for example) to monitor movement.
The device can be programmed to set up an invisible containment area - which can be set and deactivated automatically at times to suit the user - to ensure that the item it is attached to is not moved beyond that boundary.
If it is, after three consecutive movements (to prevent a false alarm being set off), the device will send an SMS text message to 'base' recording its position.
"Once machinery is parked for the night or locked up, the device becomes dormant," Young explains. "Only when the machinery is moved does it awaken. Messages can be transmitted to a texting service, a landline, by email to a BlackBerry for example. The user decides exactly where to fit the device and how they wish to receive messages."
Users can monitor the position of items by accessing an on-line interactive mapping system, and can coordinate the capture of the thieves and the recovery of equipment with the police, he adds.
The company is in talks with insurers about the possibility of including protection by TRAAKiT within the Thatcham security classification, which at present takes account of only 'hard-wired' security devices.