Piglet rustlers feed on bacon shortage

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Gangs of piglet rustlers are preying on English farms stealing hundreds of animals as the country faces a bacon shortage.

Police in Nottinghamshire are investigating the disappearance of 262 piglets who were snatched from their mothers in the Retford area.

As revealed in the Independent yesterday, bacon shortages have hit Europe due to a fall in pig conception rates and and a rise in Japanese consumption of European bacon. The British breeding herd has fallen by nearly 40,000 and supermarkets have been forced to raise the price of pork and bacon 15 per cent.

The rustlers have stolen over 500 piglets - worth around pounds 20,000 - in the past few days from farms in Humberside, North Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. In the most recent raid the piglets, weighing seven or eight pounds each, were spirited away from a one-acre field at Richard Longthorp's farm in the Retford area.

Initial fears that they might have been sold into the Chinese restaurant suckling-pigs trade have been ruled out as all the animals were weaned. But the pigs - each only a few weeks old - are not old enough to be slaughtered and are believed to be concealed in a disused warehouse for fattening.

"It is definitely an organised gang," said Harry Albright, East Midlands spokesman for the National Farmers Union. "If you have over 260 animals going missing at once, you would need a transporter large enough to carry all of them.

"Also you would need some kind of animal husbandry skills. Pigs are very intelligent animals and they would know if something was wrong - if they were taken away in the middle of the night they would not come quietly. So you would have to have someone who knows how to handle them."

"This is due in part to more animals being grazed outside but also due to the shortage of pork and bacon."

"I'm gutted," said Mr Longthorp yesterday. "It's obviously a lot of money. We'd just got them through six weeks of atrocious weather, managed to keep them alive, and then they get nicked."

Because Mr Longthorp's pigs are free-range they have no tattoos or tags to distinguish them, so the chances of police identifying them are slight.

Nottinghamshire police confirmed that they were looking into cases of piglet theft but were not as yet calling on other forces to assist them.

The pig world was quick to offer sympathy. Frances Slade, chairman of Ladies In Pigs, an organisation which promotes the consumption of British pigmeat said: "This will hit farmers very hard in the wallet. Pig farmers are not subsidised and we operate on an open market. It's a great difficulty."

Both the NFU and Mr Longthorp said that more surveillance was the answer. The NFU urged night patrols and setting up Farmwatch schemes.