Countryfile Magazine - - Contents - 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 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

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