COUNTRYFILE ISSUES WITH JOHN CRAVEN
Sheep rustling is a rising crime – but what can be done?
“Today’s rustling has become organised, involving gangs using large vehicles”
Rustling is a crime that goes back to when cavemen started keeping animals but it shows no sign of going out of fashion. In fact, I can reveal that the latest figures for livestock thefts in the UK show a worrying increase. In the first three months of 2017, the cost to farmers was £1.8 million – double that of the first quarter of last year and almost the same as for the whole of 2010.
“We’re shocked by the sharp rise,” says Tim Price, rural affairs specialist at insurers NFU Mutual, which compiles the statistics based on claims it receives. “Just a decade ago, rustling was typically a local crime involving a couple of lambs or half a dozen geese being taken ‘for the pot’. Until five years ago we rarely saw claims for more than a dozen sheep being stolen in one go. Now we are regularly seeing claims for 50 or more, and sometimes 100 or more, in single raids. It’s become organised crime involving gangs using large vehicles and few sheep are currently being recovered.”
Last year, an estimated 76,000 sheep, cattle, pigs and poultry were stolen, sometimes in broad daylight. It will be months before we know whether the latest figures are the start of a new upward trend but it is unhappy news for those trying to crack down on such crimes.
Rustlers are often brazen. One farmer told me that scores of his outdoor pigs were rounded up and taken away and a nonfarming neighbour who saw it happen thought it was normal business. To avoid arousing the suspicion of legitimate butchers, some are slaughtered in fields or sheds and the meat sold to unsuspecting customers – a potential health threat.
About 20 of Cumbrian farmer Alan Alderson’s Swaledales vanished from the fells over the past five years – no small matter, as a ewe is worth up to £250. “I know every nook and cranny where my sheep could be and when I can’t find them, then they must have been taken,” he told me. “It comes as a real blow.”
Though many farmers have insurance that covers the cost of stolen animals, rebuilding a flock or herd brings extra expense and a lot of hard work and some who are already struggling are tempted to give up. So what can be done?
Alan is taking part in a scheme now being rolled-out nationwide that he says will pass on farmers’ knowledge of husbandry, movement licences and ear tagging to police officers so they can more easily identify stolen animals. The scheme will also pay for ‘ewe hostels’ – places where sheep thought to have been rustled can be safely kept while evidence is gathered.
DNA DOESN’T LIE
DNA is the latest weapon against this age-old crime. It was used in Wales for the first time this year to convict a man of handling stolen sheep after a farmer lost 50 ewes. He later spotted some at a livestock market and after they gave birth, DNA tests proved most of the lambs were the offspring of the farmer’s rams.
Implanting microchips and painting horns with invisible but traceable paint similar to that used to protect vehicles could also thwart rustlers. But country people keeping their eyes open are the best friends farmers can have in this battle to protect their livestock. Fields can’t be turned into fortresses, so anyone seeing any suspicious activity should report it straight away.
Some farmers have fortified fields to keep livestock thieves at bay – but this is unrealistic for most of upland Britain