Sheep rustlers ride again

A crime that farmers thought belonged to history is back, with flocks worth thousands being stolen by gangs. Jonathan Owen reports

With its rolling meadows, tree-lined lanes and streams of fresh-flowing Malvern water, John Bishop's world is the quintessential English rural idyll. On arrival, it is difficult to see how he could be any less than blissfully happy. But he isn't. John Bishop is seething with anger.

For the perfection of this setting has been shattered by an outbreak of a crime most people thought had been consigned to the history books; sheep rustling. Spitting fury, he clutched his fist and waved at the corner of a field where dozens of lambs grazed last month. Now, nothing. In all, the 58-year-old Worcestershire farmer has lost more than 200 of his flock to a ruthless gang of rustlers, costing him more than £10,000.

It might seem like a tale of criminal activity that belongs firmly in the countryside's past, but the theft of large numbers of animals is an increasing problem nationwide. To tackle it, police chiefs are now looking to reopen village police stations and move officers into rural areas. Meanwhile, farmers are taking matters into their own hands by forming action groups to patrol their areas in an attempt to stop their animals being stolen by organised gangs.

There have been at least 19 separate rustling incidents investigated by police forces and almost 2,000 animals lost in the past year. But this is the tip of the iceberg, according to victims who claim that many farmers are too ashamed to admit they have lost animals that are in their care. Others simply fail to report missing sheep to the police.

Livestock theft is now costing farmers £3.5m annually, according to insurance companies that predict rural theft will soar still further as recession bites. A combination of a growing black market for cheap meat, along with sheep prices at their highest for several years, is being blamed for the resurgence of the crime.

Sheep rustling marked the start of Dick Turpin's notorious life of crime, but nearly 300 years later men on horseback robbing travellers on country roads have been replaced by organised gangs with dogs, bolt cutters and trailers.

One outfit in the north of England has become so notorious that local police have dubbed them the A68 gang – suspecting them of a string of thefts from farms near the A68 between Corbridge, in Northumberland, and Darlington, County Durham, in recent months. Other hotspots include parts of southern Scotland, Wales, the Lake District and Devon.

Some farmers have even resorted to keeping llamas – notoriously aggressive animals – with their flocks as deterrents against would-be rustlers, who operate by night, with the aid of sheepdogs.

In response to the crisis, the National Farmers' Union (NFU) is calling on farmers to set up Farmwatch schemes to keep an eye out for suspicious people or vehicles. Oliver Cartwright, an NFU spokesman, said: "Sheep rustling is part and parcel of increasing rural crime, from diesel theft to ongoing stealing of farm machinery."

A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) admitted that "fear of crime in rural communities is high" and blamed the Government for pressuring police to concentrate on "urban-centric crime targets" to the detriment of the countryside. Police officers are now being moved back into rural areas and police stations being reopened, he added.

But it is already too late for farmers such as Mr Bishop. He appeared deeply troubled as he scoured the landscape for any sign of intruders on to his farm, in the tiny village of Colwall, near Ledbury. "I'm constantly looking around, looking for tyre tracks and any signs that people may have moved animals away. It's like being burgled – how long until the next time?" Mr Bishop said. He added: "We've had years of dealing with disease problems, scrapie, CJD, foot and mouth, bluetongue... and now this."

"Nobody was more shocked than me to find out that we'd lost so many sheep," the farmer said. "It is like highway robbery. This isn't supposed to go on in the 21st century. It is almost an old-fashioned type of crime. It is like the days of Dick Turpin."

Mr Bishop comes from a sheep-farming dynasty that goes back to the early 1800s – a time when people would be hanged for sheep rustling. "I know the punishment won't fit the crime," he said, and added: "I'd like to see them breaking rocks on Dartmoor for six months."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'