Thousands of sheep thefts from remote upland flocks are going unrecorded as well-organised criminal gangs siphon off batches of animals to sell into the local meat trade.
According to farmers and the National Sheep Association, many hill flocks are suffering a steady drain of ewe numbers.
Phil Stocker, NSA chief executive, said: “We are aware from our members that this is going on in all parts of the country, at different scales and levels.
“The high retail price of lamb means animals are stolen for cheap meat and a quick buck, from individual sheep to bigger batches.”
He added: “We are urging everyone living in rural communities to be vigilant and for farmers to support each other by reporting anything suspicious to the police.”
In recent weeks hundreds of sheep have been taken from locations as far apart as Aberdeenshire and south Wales – and thieves have even been blatantly taking them from roadside fields close to farms as well as from fell grazings.
Cumbria has been a hotspot for sheep thefts this spring, with Swaledale ewes a prime target. Most “snatches” involve about 30 sheep – enough to fit a small trailer.
In Scotland one flock owner told Farmers Weekly he had lost almost 200 sheep over the past two years and said the recorded numbers of sheep being stolen was just “the tip of the iceberg”.
Nick Marshall of West Linton, Peebleshire, said: “Stealing sheep is becoming a massive problem that is having a huge effect on many hill farms where sheep numbers are being constantly reduced.
“We employed a new shepherd to cope with our plan to increase the flock from 1,000 to 1,300 ewes.
“But we are struggling to keep numbers up at the moment and currently have just 920 ewes. We are retaining all our ewe lambs, but still have fewer ewes than we did five years ago.”
The family’s flock of Blackface ewes is run on 1,600ha. Despite putting the entire farm in a ring fence and blocking off field entrances to keep gateways to a minimum, sheep are still being taken.
“Some sheep are stolen from an area that is four miles from the nearest road, so this is a well-planned operation by people who know how to drive and handle sheep,” said Mr Marshall.
“Neighbouring farms are also losing sheep, but the problem is many of us aren’t aware at the time that we have lost sheep.
“It isn’t until we gather our flocks, which may be months later, that we realise we have fewer sheep than we should.”
Mr Marshall says sheep thefts mean a heavy financial loss for the family’s business.
“Even if these ewes are worth £90 each you have to take account of the value of the lambs they would produce and of their draft value. Every ewe that is taken must stand us at £300-£400 in lost income.
“And we run a hefted flock, so we can’t buy in replacements. We have to retain more ewe lambs to keep the numbers up, but even so the flock is still getting smaller,” added Mr Marshall.