Livestock theft is one of the costliest crimes for the UK’s farming sector, with more than £2.5m worth of animals stolen in 2018.
Incidents are up by more than 10% over the past two years, with dozens or even hundreds of sheep being stolen in a single raid.
A Freedom of Information request showed 9,635 sheep were stolen in 2018, up from 7,606 in 2017 and 6,337 in 2016.
However, the National Rural Crime Survey 2018 suggested just 35% of livestock thefts were reported.
NFU Mutual senior agent Amanda Wallbank believes losses could be far higher.
She says: “Farmers I visit who graze on common or fell land say they have as many as 20 missing sheep each year, but uncertainty means they never report it.
“If the suspected losses were reported then sheep theft figures would increase hugely.
“It is a much bigger problem than people think.”
What to do if your sheep are stolen
- Contact police immediately.
- Contact insurers who will advise you. At NFU Mutual, farmers are covered for theft and mysterious disappearance. It must be reported to the police and a crime reference number given.
- Use social media. The more details you can share on social media, such as details on the sheep breed, age, markings, ear tag numbers, the better.
- Find out whether you have a local rural crime scheme and let them know.
Ms Wallbank, who works in the Eden Valley, Cumbria, says theft numbers vary year-on-year, with pedigree breeding animals the main target.
“Swaledales are probably the main breed we have reported as stolen.
“Often, they are pedigree and are probably stolen to improve flocks,” she says.
Former senior police officer John Barr believes organised crime groups are becoming involved due to the numbers being stolen.
Mr Barr says sheep thefts can be split into five types:
- Major organised crime – A higher number (more than 100 sheep) stolen in a single raid. Thieves have used sheep dogs.
- Illegal butchery – A recent increase in cases of 10-20 sheep, professionally slaughtered, by organised, possibly, foreign gangs. Meat may be sold to restaurants, through backstreet trade and markets. Food safety concerns are high due to meat withdrawal times for sheep treated with drugs.
- Pedigree sheep – Smaller numbers (one to 20) stolen often to improve flocks.
- Individuals stealing one or two sheep – Often stolen for their own consumption or sold to a restaurant.
- Money laundering – Organised criminal gangs buying and selling at auctions to launder money.
People found stealing sheep can be prosecuted for theft or handling stolen goods.
In 2016, two rustlers who stole 88 sheep totalling £35,000 were sentenced to 24 and 34 months.
Similar cases have seen thieves jailed for three years.
The Theft Act 1968 states:
- A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.
- It is immaterial whether the appropriation is made with a view to gain or for the thief’s own benefit.
The type of crime will dictate the sentence, but guilty parties could face up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
Advice on prevention
NFU Mutual advises anyone buying stock to check ear tags and records carefully to avoid buying stolen animals.
It also warns the public that buying meat from unusual sources could mean it is rustled and puts their health at risk.
There are several steps farmers can take to reduce theft and technology is providing effective ways of tracing livestock.
Mr Barr says: “A lot of options are low cost. It’s important you act rather than wait to become a victim.”
Prevention options include:
- Padlock all gates.
- Ensure stock is clearly marked and records are up to date.
- Graze livestock away from roads.
- Check stock regularly and at varying times.
- Consider a high-tech system such as TecTracer, which puts thousands of coded microdot markers into the fleece. The codes are virtually impossible to remove. Signs are also provided advertising sheep are marked with the product.
- Ask neighbours to report unusual vehicles loading sheep.
- Join a FarmWatch scheme. Many police forces have a rural crime team, a FarmWatch scheme or an active Facebook group to broadcast suspicious activity.
- Gate or fence alarms.These provide text alerts when gates or fences are moved. CCTV is also an option.
Farmer advice on prevention
Swansea Valley-based farmer Paul Fox has been a sheep theft victim on several occasions.
In one year, he had 80 ewes stolen from his 500-Welsh Mountain flock on common grazing and, from then on, realised he had to do something.
“We couldn’t go on any longer if the thefts had continued, we would have packed it in,” Mr Fox says, who found August was a prime time for criminals, with breeding ewes the main target.
Since then he has changed his practices and now all sheep are marked with TecTracer twice a year.
It is applied to the fleece such as marking paste and contains thousands of microdots, coded with the farm details, Mr Fox explains.
The microdots are virtually impossible to remove.
Codes are held in a secure database, and can be broadcast to auction marts, abattoirs and police.
He says: “It is an added cost, but if there’s a discrepancy over sheep then mine can be easily identified.
“There’s also a fear factor with using TecTracer because ownership can be easily proved if anyone is caught with sheep.
“We advertise the fact we are using it with signs on our gates.”
More visible marking
Mr Fox is also using more red marker paint, which can be spotted quite easily on the mountain.
Changed gathering and feeding patterns
Making visits to the flock more unpredictable so thieves are less certain of remaining undiscovered.
Increase awareness of rural crime
Mr Fox says everyone needs to be aware about rural crime happening in the local community and to be vigilant.
Any ewes that roam too far from the grazing area on the hill are not sent back up to the hill and are mostly culled.
Mr Fox believes the current tagging system is not fit for purpose and would welcome a microchip system instead.
He says: “Sheep tags can be removed and swapped.
“If we want traceability, lambs need to be chipped. If chips don’t tally with records, then business can’t be done.”