Cherry thieves wreaking havoc in Belgian orchards

Cherry thieves wreaking havoc in Belgian orchards
Illustration shows a field of fruits trees, with cherry blossoms in Zoutleeuw, Tuesday 12 April 2022. BELGA PHOTO ERIC LALMAND

As temperatures rise and fruit ripens, growers in the Haspengouw region of eastern Belgium are being plagued by a new scourge. Not hungry birds or insects but a much greater threat: thieves.

Extra police have been deployed to try and stop the theft but so far, little headway has been made in stopping gangs raiding orchards and farms. In one recent incident at a cherry plantation in Wellen, a suspected organised gang stripped trees in the early hours, with hundreds of kilos of cherries taken under the cover of darkness.

"The security forces are doing their best to arrest the thieves, but the gangs are laughing at us," says Peter Guilliams from Sint-Truiden, who found out on June 15 that the gangs are not afraid to use violence. Around 20:30, he was walking through his plantation to pick up a tool he had left behind when he came across two unknown men.

Aerial image of fruit tree orchards near Borgloon, Haspengouw region. BELGA PHOTO ERIC LALMAND

They told him that they were out for a walk, but the fruit grower found that strange because the nearest street was a long way away. When Guilliams insisted they leave his premises, he was hit hard and broke his hand.

Suffering a physical injury during one of the busiest times of the year is of course undesirable. But Guilliams was especially startled when he later heard from neighbours that they recognised the men's car. They had been hanging around for some time near cherry plantations where thefts had previously taken place.

Tougher policing

At the request of several farmers, police installed a surveillance camera in 2020 to trace license plates, but that clearly does not deter the criminals. Guilliams notes that thefts are increasingly frequent, and the thieves are taking larger amounts of fruit. "It is not easy to say exactly how much fruit is taken but during harvesting, some rows of trees are picked very quickly," he says.

The police zones of Sint-Truiden, Gingelom, Nieuwerkerken and Borgloon are aware of the problem. In the coming weeks, extra officers will patrol near the farms and orchards. In Borgloon, horse patrols from the federal police also make occasional passes although police chief Rohnny Maes realises that it is impossible to constantly observe the entire region. Potential thieves know that and choose cherries because they are easy to transport.

A valuable trade

A kilo of cherries costs €7 to €8 so it is no surprise that thieves choose them as the stolen goods of choice. A team of about ten people can rob farmers of thousands of euros in a few hours.

Maes notes that the robbers often offer the stolen fruits directly to retailers in larger cities, although they sometimes also end up in markets. This clear business model also explains why many gangs work like well-oiled machines, although not everyone works professionally.

Boxes of cherries pictured at the official opening of the cherry season in Borgloon, Tuesday 09 June 2020. BELGA PHOTO JORIS VLIEGEN

At the beginning of the month, grower Jos Claes from Hoepertingen caught an illegal picker red-handed with 30 kilos of cherries in his bags. One of his neighbours informed him earlier when he saw the thief, so the confrontation didn't come as a complete surprise. Nevertheless, Claes found it remarkable when he discovered that the picked cherries were not ripe at all and that the efforts of the criminal would therefore yield nothing anyway.

Long-term damage

That silliness might be funny if hundreds of pounds of cherries weren't lost every year. The fruit grower from Hoepertingen relies on the security forces and hopes that they can put an end to the problem in the short term.

"The consequences of the thefts can last for years," he says. In their attempts to get as much fruit as they can as quickly as possible, the gang members often pull branches from the trees. In this way, they can reap the benefits at home, although this approach also has dire consequences on the future harvest. "Young shoots are destroyed and the plants often die. As a result, the price of such a theft for us as growers quickly rises."

The chief of police of The Canton of Borgloon understands the frustration of the farmers but contradicts the idea of impunity. "If we catch them, they get a police report for theft. After that, it is up to the public prosecutor's office to give the necessary follow-up," says Maes. He asks fruit growers not to hesitate and to file a report, something not everyone does.

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