Sheep rustling is booming as the price of meat soars, according to figures obtained by The Independent, 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 disturbing 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 even 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."
The price of minced lamb has risen by almost 30 per cent since 2008, from £6.59 to £8.50 a kilogram, while the National Sheep Association says sheep now sell for an average of £75, more than double the price three years ago. Prize breeds can sell at auction for thousands of pounds.
Sheep rustling marked the start of Dick Turpin's notorious life of crime, but nearly 300 years on, the highwayman been replaced by organised gangs with dogs, bolt-cutters and trailers. Many, however, still 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 live in remote fields far from the farmhouse.
PC Claire Salmon, Northamptonshire Police's Wildlife and Countryside Liaison Officer, who investigated the Westhill Farm shootings, said: "We think organised crime gangs are behind most incidents of sheep rustling but it is often impossible to catch the culprits because they can be very stealthy," she said. "We believe the sheep were taken as dead stock and probably sold from the back of a van. And high meat prices must make it more attractive than before."