If you thought that rustling had vanished along with Billy the Kid, prepare to think again.
It is back in a big way and in the UK. Instead of long-horn steers, rustlers are going for British sheep, regarded by many as the finest of all meat. In his new book The Good Cook, the chef Simon Hopkinson describes this national treat as "terrifically tasty" with "the best smell in the world".
According to a friend in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the underlying reason for the return of rustling is that the French have developed a taste for our lamb and can afford it due to the rocketing euro. "When the price was low, there was no rustling," he said. "With this year's astonishing prices for finished [ready-for-the-table] lambs, rustling became viable."
It is not, however, all that easy. A rustler will require skilled assistance, both human and canine, to gather the sheep quietly under cover of darkness. He will also need a compliant abattoir willing to deal with sheep lacking valid ear-tags and an Animal Movement Licence.
"You know it's got to be someone in the industry," my friend ruefully admitted, though he doubted if much stolen lamb will end up on butchers' hooks. "Chances are it will go straight to restaurants."