An increase in instances of large-scale sheep rustling has been blamed for a 20% rise in the cost of livestock theft to the UK farming sector.
Figures from rural insurer NFU Mutual reveal the value of livestock theft has increased to £3 million in the last two years, making it the most costly crime to the sector after agricultural vehicle and machinery theft.
“Rustling has always been an aspect of farming but 10 years ago we would rarely see claims of more than a dozen sheep taken in one go,” said NFU Mutual rural affairs specialist Rebecca Davidson.
“We are now regularly getting reports of 50 to 100 sheep being taken in a single raid and it is devastating for farmers as they deal with the aftermath.”
She said rustlers were getting more skilled and organised, quickly loading sheep on to trailers and lorries late at night, and there were concerns they are now using working sheepdogs, also stolen, to assist them.
Ms Davidson said cases of animals being illegally butchered were also on the rise, and analysis by the insurer had identified three distinct types of livestock theft plaguing the sector.
These are: large-scale theft, which is an organised crime with livestock destined for the food chain; the theft of pedigree rams for their high value as breeding stock; and organised criminal gangs buying and selling on sheep at auctions to launder money.
In a bid to tackle the issue, NFU Mutual has issued guidance to farmers and crofters.
Advice includes grazing livestock in fields away from roads where possible and varying the times of feeding and stock checks.
Farmers are asked to report any suspicious sightings to the police and to not approach criminals if an incident is taking place.