POLICE in the English Midlands have launched drone patrols over farmland in an effort to catch the people who have slaughtered and stolen almost 80 sheep in a series of night-time raids over the last month.

The horror began on July 8, when the family of farmer Phil Neal, of Park End Farming near Crick, in Northamptonshire, found the remnants of the field butchery of 12 of their sheep, and a further two killed, but left intact at the scene.

Since then, there have been four more 'slaughter and removal' raids at farms around the area, at Whilton, Kelmarsh, Rushton and Clipston, prompting the police to launch 'Operation Stock' to catch the culprits. It is thought the animals have been killed specifically to be sold on illegally to restaurants and shops.

Officers have now begun drone surveillance of grazing land, alongside extra ground patrols, whilst trading standards and environmental health officers investigate where the meat may be entering the food chain. Signs urging local residents to report anything suspicious have been sent to farmers and landowners in the area.

"A lot of the crimes have happened in quite remote locations," said Sgt Sam Dobbs of Northamptonshire Police. "You physically can't see from the road what's going on. The drone can cover such a large area and see such a lot at night with the thermal imaging."

But Sgt Dobbs warned that the problem was 'wider than just one county' as the raiders seemed to be striking in areas close to major road networks, where they could make a quick escape with the carcases.

Mr Neal has spoken out in the local press and Park End Farming's social media about the trauma his partner Katie and sons Charles, two, and Tom, eight, suffered from discovering the crime scene on their way home from school.

“It’s the worst thing for my children to witness,” said Mr Neal. “We’re in shock, feeling emotionally and physically exhausted. I feel like giving up, after all the hard work and love that goes into our stock.”

He said that the theft was both demoralising and financially painful because the slaughtered sheep had been intended for sale through the family's meat business.

“The people who did this are highly-skilled butchers – they leave no meat on the bone," he added. “I think because this is happening more regularly to farmers that a law change is needed. There needs to be stricter punishment.

“If I stepped on someone’s property carrying a knife to steal their dog, I would go to prison. What is the difference?"

Speaking for Northamptonshire County Council trading standards, Cllr Jason Smithers said: “These cases raise real animal welfare and food safety concerns as the people doing this are following none of the legally required processes or standards.

“Being slaughtered in a field, not an approved slaughterhouse, means animal welfare considerations around handling and stunning are clearly being ignored, and those killing the animals are highly unlikely to be licensed slaughterers.

“In terms of the meat being taken, the hygiene and anti-contamination processes followed in slaughterhouses are also obviously not taking place, and the animals have been slaughtered without confirmation of food chain status," said Cllr Smithers.

“This means they may have recently received medication which would mean they could not enter the food chain for a set period of time, making their meat potentially unfit for consumption.

“Similarly the meat will not have undergone a meat hygiene inspection which would pick up any undetected illnesses the animals may have had when killed, and the meat will not be labelled or traceable as is required.

“If you are offered cheap meat, it may not be safe, nor meet animal welfare or food standards, so if you have any doubt, do not buy or eat it, and report your concerns to us or to the police.”

On July 24, a 40-year-old Hampshire man was arrested on suspicion of criminal damage and theft as part of the investigation, but the police stressed that they have not treated that as the end of the matter. The senior investigating officer for Operation Stock, Detective Inspector Johnny Campbell of Northampton CID, said: “We’re taking this fast-moving investigation very seriously with a dedicated team following a number of lines of inquiry into these awful crimes.

“One man arrested in connection with these incidents has been released under investigation, with inquiries ongoing as our investigators and the Rural Crime Team work tirelessly to bring those responsible to justice.

“We’re receiving lots of intelligence into CID regarding Operation Stock and I’d like to thank everyone who has reported suspicious activity to us. These reports are vital to our work and I’d urge anyone with potentially relevant information to contact us via 101 or online.”