Sheep rustling on the increase as the price of meat soars

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Sheep rustling is booming as the price of meat soars, according to figures obtained by i, with thieves targeting British farms at almost double the rate they were six months ago.

Meat prices and the recession have been blamed for the crimewave that has seen thieves go to increasingly greater lengths to round up their plunder, dead or alive.

Already 32,926 sheep have been stolen from farmyards and fields across Britain since January, compared with 38,095 taken throughout 2010, say NFU Mutual, the insurance wing of the National Farmers' Union. But the numbers could be higher as the company represents only two thirds of British farmers.

"This is a very worrying and growing trend," said Phil Hudson, the National Farmers' Union head of food and farming. "The theft of livestock results in an obvious financial cost for farmers, but more than that there are also real concerns for the health and welfare of the animals that are stolen from fields."

Sheep rustling marked the start of Dick Turpin's notorious life of crime, but nearly 300 years on the highwayman has been replaced by organised gangs with dogs, bolt-cutters and trailers. Many carry guns.

Two weeks ago, farmer Vernon Phipps, 53, who runs 1,000-acre Westhill Farm, near Banbury, Northamptonshire, awoke to find a gang had executed his entire flock by shooting them in the neck to preserve the meat.

The raiders had bundled 26 of the best carcasses into a van to sell on the black market. The ones they didn't want they left dead and dying on the grass. Mr Phipps said: "We think the gunman used a silencer, otherwise someone would have heard the shots. They were also careful to take away the rifle shells. They even shut the gate when they left."

Farms are also being targeted by thieves for their pigs, cattle, bees and there have even been incidents where swans and carp have been plundered from lakes and rivers. But sheep tend to be their booty of choice because the animals usually graze in remote fields.

PC Claire Salmon, Northamptonshire Police's Wildlife and Countryside Liaison Officer, who investigated the shootings, said: "We believe the sheep were taken as dead stock and probably sold from the back of a van."

The price of minced lamb has risen almost 30 per cent since 2008, from £6.59 to £8.50 a kilogram, while the National Sheep Association says the average animal sells for £75, double the price three years ago.