The killing fields: villagers are horrified and baffled by spate of sheep shootings

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Nick Boyles will never forget the sight that greeted him as he went to inspect a field of ewes and newborn lambs on his Oxfordshire farmland earlier this month.

Nick Boyles will never forget the sight that greeted him as he went to inspect a field of ewes and newborn lambs on his Oxfordshire farmland earlier this month.

"There was blood everywhere. A maniac had been walking among them shooting with a rifle. Some lambs had holes in them as big as the back of your hand."

Seven lambs and three ewes were shot in the field close to the village of Horton-cum-Studley, north-east of Oxford.

The slaughter has been repeated on at least six occasions in neighbouring fields on the Oxfordshire fenland that is Otmoor. More than 70 animals have been killed or injured during the past month.

The apparently indiscriminate killing has caused alarm and distress among the region's network of picturesque villages and within the local farming community. As well as fears that the gunman could turn his weapon on a human, there are the outstanding questions of who is responsible and why is he doing it.

Oxfordshire police have become so concerned that they have set up night time patrols and have been trying to reassure residents with a mobile control room in Horton-cum-Studley. But despite the heavy police presence the killing goes on. In the most recent incident last Monday, eight more lambs were killed. The shooting started on 9 April, when a dozen lambs were found dead.

Mr Boyles, whose family has been running a livestock farm near the village of Worminghall for three generations, has had his lambs killed on two occasions and has now moved all his animals to fields further away in Buckinghamshire.

"Everybody is worried - when you have got a bloody maniac running around shooting with a rifle it is bound to cause a lot of concern," he said. "Not a soul around here has got the faintest idea who it is and why they're doing it. It's a total mystery.

"It started out of the blue and it is still going on. The big concern is that he will move on to other targets and start going for people."

The shooting is always during the hours of darkness. The gunman - the police believe it is a lone man - often parks up on the side of an isolated road and behind the cover of flowering hawthorn hedges fires randomly at the sleeping animals. He is believed to have shot from the roadside as well as wandered among the sheep shooting with the high powered rifle, probably a 2.2 calibre.

Despite suffering dreadful wounds, some of the animals have survived their injuries. Mr Boyles has one five-year-old ewe that was shot through the thighs of her front legs, who has nearly recovered and is about to be returned to the flock.

On one occasion villagers from Horton-cum-Studley heard the sound of gunfire and went to investigate only to discover the killer had fled, leaving behind a field of dead animals.

One theory is that that the gunman has developed a taste for the butchery and the resulting publicity in the local press and television. He or she appears to have struck shortly after any fresh news coverage.

The main target for the gunman has been the farmer Colin Badger who has begun moving his 600 ewes and 1,000 lambs out of the fields. He said: "I'm at my wit's end."

Police investigations have failed to uncover any feuds or long-running hate campaigns that could explain why Mr Badger is being singled out. Almost everyone speaks highly of the farmer, describing him as a "popular, gentle man", who has been devastated by the shootings.

A 42-year-old man who has lived in the area all his life said: "Colin Badger is one of the most respected people around. He wouldn't say boo to a goose. I can't believe anyone would have a vendetta against him. Whoever is responsible must be a very sick person."

An elderly woman who lives in Horton-cum-Studley, which has becoming increasingly populated by Oxford dons, company directors and wealthy retired people from London, said she was frightened to go out at night while the shootings continue.

"Nothing like this has ever happened around here before," she said.

Timothy Hallchurch, the district and county councillor for the village and surrounding area, said: "Every time a vehicle moves at night I go and have a look to see who it is."

He said one problem was that because the village's only shop and post office had closed, and the pub was now an upmarket hotel and restaurant, there was no focal point for local residents to meet and discuss the shootings.

"It makes it difficult to find out what people are feeling," he explained.

In response to the killings the police, who have described the shootings as "despicable", have set up Operation Jorton and have a team of detectives working on the case.

A police spokesman said: "We have no idea why these farmers have been targeted. It's worrying because you have an a series of isolated communities and there is someone out there willing to wield and use a firearm. It is a priority for us to find who is responsible."

A 53-year-old man living in a nearby village was arrested in connection with the matter a week ago and has been released on bail.

The RSPCA is offering a reward of £1,000. Inspector Doug Davidson said: "I think it is somebody who either thinks he is Rambo, has got a grudge against the farmer or the countryside.

"Whatever, he seems to have got a taste for it."

Rural mystery

* 9 APRIL: Twelve lambs shot dead in field near Horton-cum-Studley, north-east of Oxford

* 21 APRIL: Ten lambs and a ewe shot dead

* 23 APRIL: Eleven lambs shot dead; 10 injured and subsequently put down

* 1 MAY: Seven lambs shot dead and three ewes injured. One ewe has died.

* 7 MAY: Six lambs hurt

* 9 MAY: Twelve lambs killed