Ram-raiders get serious as meat prices make rustling pay

Sheep rustling has risen fivefold in just over a year, with farmers and police complaining of organised gangs adept at handling livestock.

The soaring price of lamb combined with the recession have made the woolly animals a prime target for thieves. Across the country police forces have complained of gangs targeting farms, on some occasions leading away hundreds of animals.

"In the last 18 months we have seen the number of rustling thefts from farms increase fivefold," said Tim Price, a spokesman for NFU Mutual, which insures two-thirds of farmers. "We have had about 10 years at a very low level and it has taken off again.

"We think there are two factors: the price of meat has shot up, and the recession. In the past when there is a downturn in the economy, rural crime goes up."

With the price of lamb rising from £2.70 to £4.80 a kilogram, the average animal now sells for about £65, nearly double the price it fetched three years ago. The weak pound also means sheep are being exported and thieves, who in recent years reacted to global price rises for metal by stealing scrap, and for oil by raiding farm tanks, have now turned their attention to another source of income.

Counties such as Northumbria have been hit particularly hard, with police appealing for help from the farming community after a total of 411 sheep, worth more than £25,000, were stolen in nine separate incidents in the past few months.

North Yorkshire and North Wales have suffered a spate of thefts in recent weeks. Last month West Mercia Police said 161 animals had been taken in 2009-10, double the number stolen the previous year.

Cumbrian officers said they were seeing incidents on an unprecedented scale, including the theft of 100 breeding sheep worth £10,000 in September. Farmer Andrew Allen, who had 45 Swaledale ewes stolen in the same month, said he was "angry and gutted". He added: "Whoever took the sheep must have had a decent dog and be used to handling stock."

PC John Baldwin said: "Before you would get thieves stealing a small number of sheep – 10 or 15 or so, which could be slaughtered in a back garage and the meat sold to friends or work colleagues. But now it is many more. On this scale it must be being done by well organised gangs who have a working knowledge of animal husbandry."

In one of the worst cases this year, 271 Texel sheep were taken from a farm in Lancashire by raiders who herded them through a pen and on to a truck.

Mr Price of NFU Mutual said animals had even been butchered in the fields, warning people to be wary of bargain meat that may not have been hygienically slaughtered. The insurer urged people only to buy from reputable sources and to look out for suspicious night-time activity on farms.

The NFU Livestock Board's chairman, Alistair Mackintosh, said yesterday that such thefts came in spates. "How do you guard a whole farm?" he said. "That is the vulnerability of farming. Very often it is almost a lifetime's work breeding these sheep with pedigrees and it is heartbreaking to see that work devastated. All the farmers I know are vigilant but when the sheep are out in the fields at night it is very difficult to keep the same degree of security."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower