Bull mar­ket? No, sheep are the new­est com­mod­ity.

Bri­tish flocks at risk as thieves try to cap­i­tal­ize on high prices for lamb

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY AN­THONY FAIOLA

The rolling hills of the English Lake District, home to the sto­ries of Peter Rab­bit and end­less acres of misty farms, seem the last place on Earth for a crime wave. But farmer, be­ware: Thieves are stalk­ing the puffy white gold of the Bri­tish coun­try­side.

“ They want our sheep,” said An­drew Allen, 46, sur­vey­ing his flock, now thinned af­ter the re­cent theft of 45 head.

Allen is one of 19 farm­ers to fall prey to sheep rustlers in the ma­jes­tic lake re­gion over the past 12 months, with the thefts here only one part of a bizarre surge in ru­ral crime that has seen in­ci­dents of sheep rustling sky­rocket across Bri­tain. The cul­prit? Glob­al­iza­tion. The ovine crime wave be­gan, in­surance com­pany and farm union of­fi­cials say, af­ter global food prices started jump­ing again. With bouts of bad weather in ma­jor pro­duc­ers such as Rus­sia, Ar­gentina and Aus­tralia and in­creas­ing de­mand in Asia, the price for many grains is now bust­ing through the record highs they set in 2008. But meat prices have also surged, par­tic­u­larly for lamb.

Be­cause of es­ca­lat­ing world de­mand and scaled-back pro­duc­tion in such na­tions as New Zealand, a farmer’s price per pound for lamb here is now about 35 per­cent higher than in 2008. The 45 head of sheep stolen from Allen in late Septem­ber, for in­stance, were worth $6,400 — or twice the price they would have fetched five years ago.

Ris­ing prices have fu­eled what au­thor­i­ties here de­scribe as a thriv­ing black mar­ket for lamb and mut­ton, with stolen an­i­mals butchered in makeshift slaugh­ter­houses be­fore their meat is il­le­gally sold to small gro­cery stores, pubs and penny-wise con­sumers.

But farm­ers here are count­ing more than lost sheep. Bri­tain is also wit­ness­ing a surge in the theft of trac­tors and other farm ma­chin­ery, with au­thor­i­ties blam­ing or­ga­nized crime rings smug­gling the stolen equip­ment into East­ern Europe — where farm­ers are rush­ing to

cash in on high grain prices by cul­ti­vat­ing more and more land.

Lo­cal au­thor­i­ties in Bri­tain are rac­ing to beef up “farm-watch” pro­grams, with some ranch­ers in the pic­turesque coun­try­side long used to sleep­ing with their doors un­locked and with keys in their trac­tors now in­stalling video sur­veil­lance equip­ment on their prop­er­ties.

“I'd see peo­ple parked at the road­side and look­ing at the lambs, and I’d chat with them, quite proud of the sheep my­self,” said Paul Tay­lor, 31, whose farm in High Legh, a small vil­lage in north­west Eng­land, was bur­gled of 100 sheep worth $16,000. But “noth­ing is in­no­cent any­more. Now when peo­ple drive past, you take their li­cense plate num­bers down.”

Soar­ing value of lamb

The ru­ral crime wave in Bri­tain un­der­scores the ways in which high food prices are rip­pling across the world. Al­though sky-high prices in 2008 eased dur­ing the Great Re­ces­sion, they have shot up again, in part be­cause of bad weather, climb­ing oil prices and resur­gent de­mand as the global econ­omy re­cov­ers.

This month, the U.N. Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion said that its food price in­dex — which in­cludes whole­sale costs for such com­modi­ties as wheat, corn, sugar, dairy prod­ucts and meat — had climbed to a record high.

In 2008, high food prices sparked bloody ri­ots in Africa and Asia, and even con­trib­uted to bring­ing down the govern­ment in Haiti. In re­cent weeks, food prices have again con­trib­uted to fresh bouts of un­rest in Tu­nisia and Al­ge­ria, with some an­a­lysts fear­ing more ri­ots.

Nev­er­the­less, other ex­perts say that abun­dant har­vests in Africa this year, and the still rel­a­tively low prices of some grains, in­clud­ing rice, may pre­vent a more se­ri­ous wave of vi­o­lence from re­cur­ring this year.

“We are alarmed by the surge, but we do not yet think we have reached the point of a new cri­sis,” said Ab­dol­reza Ab­bassian, se­nior econ­o­mist at the FAO. “Some of the con­di­tions that ex­isted in 2008, like poor har­vests in Africa, are not true now,”

Still, high food prices are hav­ing other kinds of side ef­fects, such as the resur­gence of sheep rustling.

With lamb prices in­creas­ing, au­thor­i­ties from Aus­tralia to Turkey to Spain are also warn­ing of thieves. But few places have taken as much no­tice of the surge as Bri­tain, where sheep are as much a part of cher­ished coun­try life as fresh-baked scones and clot­ted cream.

“We have been watch­ing what’s hap­pen­ing in Bri­tain in amaze­ment, and won­der­ing, frankly, why it isn’t hap­pen­ing yet in the United States since lamb prices are at record highs,” said Judy Malone, di­rec­tor of in­dus­try in­for­ma­tion at the Amer­i­can Sheep In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion in En­gle­wood, Colo. “But I think it has a lot to do with the fact that lamb is so much more pop­u­lar in Bri­tain than it is in the United States. Ev­ery­body there fol­lows the price closely.”

An eco­nomic blow

In Bri­tain, the crime wave is hit­ting sheep farm­ers just as their for­tunes were be­gin­ning to turn. Re­duced sub­si­dies have made it less lu­cra­tive to raise sheep here in re­cent years, and though Bri­tain is still the largest lamb pro­ducer in Europe, flock num­bers have fallen by 21 per­cent since 2000. Now, just as prices are high, sheep farm­ers have been hit with a rash of thefts, with more than 10,000 head re­ported stolen in 2010, dou­ble the fig­ure a year ear­lier.

“ There is no doubt that this is di­rectly re­lated to food prices,” said Tim Price, spokesman for the Na­tional Farm­ers Union Mu­tual, Bri­tain’s largest agri­cul­tural in­surer. “ The prices went up, and so did the thefts.”

Po­lice, how­ever, say their limited re­sources in the coun­try­side have made it dif­fi­cult to break up sheep theft rings. Nev­er­the­less, given how dif­fi­cult it is to round up the an­i­mals, many think that rogue farm­ers or slaugh­ter­house op­er­a­tors may be in­volved.

In Win­der­mere, where lo­cal gift shops cel­e­brate sheep with stuffed toys, mugs, even milk choco­late “sheep drop­pings,” Allen said he was dev­as­tated when he no­ticed that his flock had shrunk. “I was go­ing to give ’em their de­lous­ing dip, you know, ev­ery­one likes a good bath, when I no­ticed they were a bunch of them missing,” he said.

How could he tell in a field of 600 sheep?

“Be­cause,” he said, “a farmer knows.”

AN­THONY FAIOLA/THE WASHINGTON POST

An­drew Allen of Win­de­mere, Eng­land, says 45 an­i­mals have been re­cently taken from his flock of 600. The missing sheep are worth $6,400.

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