New figures released today reveal that livestock worth £3 million were stolen from UK farms in 2019.
Large-scale sheep thefts over the past two years have contributed to a 19.4% rise in value since 2017, according to rural insurer NFU Mutual.
This makes rustling the most costly crime for the UK’s farming sector after agricultural vehicle and machinery theft.
As well as causing untold suffering to sheep, which may be in lamb when they are stolen, rustling is causing high levels of anxiety for farmers who have built up their flocks over many years.
Rebecca Davidson, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, said: “Rustling has always been an aspect of farming but ten years ago we would rarely see claims of more than a dozen sheep taken in one go.
“We are now regularly getting reports of fifty to a hundred sheep being taken in a single raid and it is devastating for farmers as they deal with the aftermath.”
“As well as causing untold suffering to sheep, which may be in lamb when they are stolen, rustling is causing high levels of anxiety for farmers who have built up their flocks over many years,” she said.
“Rustlers are getting more skilled and organised, quickly loading sheep onto trailers and lorries late at night.
“We are concerned that gangs are now using working sheepdogs, which have also been stolen, to get the job done.”
One of the most alarming trends which has developed in recent years has been the illegal butchery of animals in the field.
As well as the financial loss, these crimes are deeply disturbing for farmers and their families who find the remains of slaughtered animals in the field.
Ms Davidson added: “We believe that meat from stolen animals is being sold on the black market and undermining welfare standards.
“Meat which has been butchered in unhygienic conditions, and may be from animals which have had medical treatment, poses a real threat to human health.”
To avoid buying stolen meat which has been slaughtered in unregulated abattoirs, NFU Mutual advises members of the public to look for the Red Tractor logo and not to buy meat from unusual sources.
The insurer is also involved in a number of schemes with police forces that share valuable intelligence and support the training of officers to work more closely with farmers and identify livestock theft.
NFU Mutual has also supported secure shelters for stolen farm animals so they can be cared for while police investigations take place.
How do I prevent livestock rustling?
Preventing rustling is not as easy as putting a padlock on a building or fitting a security system to a tractor.
However, there are a number of steps farmers can take to reduce the risk and technology is now providing effective ways of tracing stolen livestock.
To deter livestock thieves, NFU Mutual advises farmers to:
• Ensure stock is clearly marked and records are up to date
• When possible graze livestock in fields away from roads
• Check stock regularly - and vary times of feeding/check ups
• Consider a high-tech marking system such as TecTracer which puts thousands of coded microdot markers into a sheep’s fleece
• Join a Farm or Rural Watch scheme to share information about rural crime in your area
• Ask neighbours to report any suspicious sightings to the police, or to give information 100% anonymously to the Rural Crime Hotline 0800 783 0137
• Dial 999 immediately if an incident is taking place - do not approach criminals