How technology is helping farmers curb sheep thefts

Sheep theft cost the UK £2.4m last year, according to latest figures from NFU Mutual, with livestock one of the biggest targets after machinery, tools and vehicle thefts.

Now, a new livestock tracing system, which works by marking livestock with thousands of forensic coded microdots, is acting as a deterrent and helping farmers retrieve stolen stock.

Cumbrian sheep and beef farmer Pip Simpson of Poolebank Farm, Troutbeck, started using TecTracer earlier this year after thieves stole more than 300 sheep from his farm over a four-year period.

See also: Police target marts in sheep theft crackdown

Mr Simpson dyed his sheep a luminous orange in 2015 to discourage the thieves but was unable to repeat it last year due to the wet summer, so he turned to using the TecTracer marker paste.

TecTracer has been developed by John Minary, a former senior police detective. It is applied to the fleece like any marking paste, but contains thousands of little microdots, which have a code specific to the farm. The codes are virtually impossible to remove, yet are easy to recover and read by the police.

Signs are also given to farmers advertising the fact that sheep are marked with the product. The codes are held in a secure database and, should a theft happen, they can be broadcast to auction marts, abattoirs and even the police, which can read them using an inexpensive microscope.

What is TecTracer?

  • A paste used to mark sheep. It contains thousands of forensic coded microdots containing a farm-specific code.
  • This helps trace and identify stolen sheep and produces vital evidence for the police to help catch and convict criminals.
  • Farmers can put TecTracer signs up around the farm to deter criminals.

Testing the system

The system has already proved its worth for Mr Simpson, who had 14 pregnant ewes, worth about £2,500 in total, go missing in February this year.

The ewes had been marked with the product. After they disappeared Mr Simpson’s wife, Hannah, put a post on Facebook pleading for their return and informing people who the sheep had been marked with TecTracer. The post went viral and two weeks later the sheep were mysteriously returned to a field during the night.

Mr Simpson says: “Clearly the thief thought the sheep were too hot to handle. We got a lot of interest on social media and someone contacted us to say our sheep had been seen in a field in Chorley. They then told us they’d seen a pick-up loading them and the next day they reappeared in the field.”

Mr Simpson believes the thefts must involve someone with local knowledge. “The sheep are on an enclosed fell with no roads. It’s got to involve someone who knows the area well and has the tools for the job. Not everyone can just round up sheep and take out ear tags and put new ones in,” he says.

Financial losses

Last year in Cumbria the cost of sheep thefts rose by 42% on the year, with NFU Mutual estimating it cost the local economy £125,000, compared to £88,000 in 2016.

Mr Simpson reckons the thefts have cost him about £30,000. “It’s not just the cost of the sheep you have to take into account, it’s also the loss from potential lambs that could have come from those sheep.”

Drastic action

Mr Simpson also took the decision to change his breed of sheep from the Herdwick to North Country Cheviots in an attempt to curb sheep being stolen.

“We had about 700 Herdwicks at the time and would buy draft ewes and put them to a Charollais tup. There seemed to be more of a demand for the Herdwicks. They would take 20-30 at a time, but that soon adds up,” he says.

When he changed the breed in 2015 he bought 400 North Country Cheviots. For 12 months there were no thefts. However, in July 2016 it started again when 22 ewes and 28 lambs went missing.

“It was at this point we decide to dye all the sheep and lambs orange, which was about 700-800 head using carpet dye.

“We got a lot of publicity and we didn’t lose any after that. We also didn’t see any knock-on effect with the wool price. The downside is if everyone starts doing it then it’s not such a good deterrent. It also doesn’t last as long.” 

That’s why he turned to TecTracer.

Cost of using TecTracer

Mr Simpson says the cost of using TecTracer is double that of a normal marker paste, with a one-litre tub costing about £35.

However, he says it’s worth every penny. “It’s definitely worth the extra cost if it means you are not losing any sheep. The tub covers a lot of sheep as well,” he says.

Level of livestock thefts

In the region of 1,200 sheep were stolen in England and Wales between 2012-17, official police statistics show.

However, according to the National Rural Crime Survey 2018, it is estimated that only 35% of livestock thefts are reported.

TecTracer’s John Barr believes the number of stock stolen is likely to be double the figure reported to police.

“Only farmers who can claim on their insurance will bother to report. We talk to many farmers who don’t bother reporting the theft of small numbers of sheep because the hassle of spending time waiting for police to answer the 101 number is not worth it.

“We have even spoken to farmers who are literally in tears because nothing is being done to curb the effect of sheep thefts on their livelihood,” he adds.

Mr Barr believes thefts are taking place as “it’s an easy way for these criminals to make money”.

Local initiatives

However, in Cumbria a lot of effort has been put into a rural crime scheme called Country Watch Eden, which has involved the police being trained about sheep farming by farmers.

Amanda Wallbanks, a senior agent for NFU Mutual and group secretary for the NFU, says the scheme means the police understand more about what is going on.

“It is giving the farmers the confidence to pick up the phone and know they are going to be taken seriously. The police in the area answering 101 calls now have a crib sheet so they have specific questions to ask and that information is then passed to the rural PSCOs to investigate.

“We also use social media to broadcast any suspicious activity and thefts and this has been very effective,” she says.

What to do if your sheep are stolen

Amanda Wallbanks, a senior agent for NFU Mutual and group secretary for the NFU, shares some tips on what to do if you are a victim of sheep theft:

  1. Get in touch with the police immediately.
  2. Contact your insurance office, which will be able to 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.
  3. Use social media. The more details you can share on social media, such as breed, age, markings, ear tag numbers etc, the better.
  4. Find out whether you have a local rural crime scheme and let them know.
  5. Be vigilant.