FARM ANIMALS worth £3million were stolen from UK farms in 2019, according to new figures released by rural insurer NFU Mutual.

In a worrying new trend, the countryside was suffering from 'skilled and organised' gangs, undertaking large-scale sheep thefts – an upscaling that had contributed to a 19.4% rise in the value of livestock stolen since 2017, making rustling the third most costly crime for the UK farming sector, after agricultural vehicle and machinery theft.

NFU Mutual rural affairs specialist Rebecca Davidson said: “Rustling has always been an aspect of farming but ten years ago we would rarely see claims of more than a dozen sheep taken in one go. We are now regularly getting reports of fifty to a hundred sheep being taken in a single raid and it is devastating for farmers as they deal with the aftermath.

“As well as causing untold suffering to sheep, which may be in lamb when they are stolen, rustling is causing high levels of anxiety for farmers who have built up their flocks over many years," said Ms Davidson.

“Rustlers are getting more skilled and organised, quickly loading sheep onto trailers and lorries late at night. We are concerned that gangs are now using working sheepdogs, which have also been stolen, to get the job done."

According to the claim statistics and police reports, there are three distinct types of livestock crime currently taking place – large-scale theft, by organised criminals, of livestock destined for the food chain; pedigree stock stolen for their high value as breeding stock; and money laundering, where organised criminal gangs buy and sell on sheep at auctions to launder money.

Alongside the increasing scale of the thefts, one of the most alarming aspects of the rustling-for-meat epidemic is the frequent use of illegal butchery of animals in the field, said Ms Davidson. As well as the financial loss, these crimes were 'deeply disturbing' for farmers and their families, who were often the first to find the remains of their slaughtered animals.

“We believe that meat from stolen animals is being sold on the black market and undermining welfare standards," said Ms Davidson. "Meat which has been butchered in unhygienic conditions, and may be from animals which have had medical treatment, poses a real threat to human health.”

Members of the public who want to avoid stolen meat, which has either been slaughtered in unregulated abattoirs or by a roadside, should not buy meat from 'unusual sources', and always look for an assurance label like Scotch Lamb PGI or the Red Tractor logo.

NFU Mutual recommended a number of steps that farmers can take to reduce their exposure to rustling:

• Ensure stock are clearly marked and records are up to date;

• When possible graze livestock in fields away from roads;

• Check stock regularly – and vary times of feeding/check ups;

• Consider a high-tech marking system such as TecTracer, which puts thousands of coded microdot markers into a sheep’s fleece;

• Join a Farm or Rural Watch scheme to share information about rural crime in your area;

• Ask neighbours to report any suspicious sightings to the police, or to give information 100% anonymously to the Rural Crime Hotline 0800 783 0137;

• Dial 999 immediately if an incident is taking place – do not approach criminals.

The insurer is currently involved in a number of schemes with police forces around the UK, which are sharing intelligence on rural crime and helping train officers to work more closely with farmers to identify livestock theft. The insurer has also supported secure shelters for stolen farm animals that are retrieved, so they can be cared for while police investigations take place.