By Emine Saner
Livestock rustling is on the rise – 90,000 animals were stolen from British farms last year alone. It’s bad for animal welfare, increases the risk of spreading disease – and could endanger your health
The piglets were taken in broad daylight, loaded on to a trailer in the middle of the afternoon three weeks ago. Ben Spurgeon was on holiday at the time, but he got a phone call from his colleagues to say more than 120 piglets had gone missing. One piglet had escaped and was brought round by his next-door neighbour who assumed that the people who had been loading up the piglets in the yard at his Suffolk farm were Spurgeon’s workers. “But we’d gone home at 2.30pm and this was at 3 o’clock,” he says. “They must have been watching us go.”
Spurgeon’s farm has suffered other thefts – two four-wheel drive vehicles have gone, radios taken out of tractors, diesel pinched – and this is not the first time he has lost livestock to thieves. Two years ago, he remembers getting up early one wintry morning to feed his pigs and finding a trail of blood in the snow across his field. Shocked, he prepared himself to find a dead body on his land. “Then I realised [the blood\ had come from my pen, and was from one of my sows,” he says. She had been killed in the field and dragged, all 80kg of her, to the A14 and loaded into a vehicle.
Livestock thefts have increased on British farms during the past few years, and jumped again by 24% last year. According to figures from the insurance company NFU Mutual, which insures around three quarters of the UK’s farmers, around 90,000 animals were stolen last year – mostly sheep, though pigs and cattle have also been targeted – costing farmers £6.5m. The word rustling sounds almost quaint, with its connotations of centuries-old mischiefs, or wild west-style lawlessness, but it can be hugely damaging to many farmers’ livelihoods, has serious welfare issues for the animals taken and could have terrible consequences if diseases are spread. It can even affect the health of the customers who buy illegal meat.
During the 2000s, livestock rustling “was at a historically very low level and thieves concentrated their effort on machinery, quad bikes and tractors that they could sell on for a big profit,” says Tim Price, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual. “From 2011 onwards, we saw rustling start to pick up. A large part of the reason is that the price of meat has increased significantly and thieves saw an opportunity to steal livestock and sell it into the food chain. Rural thieves respond very quickly to changes in commodity prices, machinery prices, and move to take anything they can sell on.”
The biggest increases, he says, have been in Northern Ireland, and in the northeast and northwest of England. Most of the thefts are of sheep, “because they are relatively easy to transport, they’re outside, often in remote areas. In Northern Ireland, we’re seeing cattle being taken as well, which is a worrying development.”
The thieves have to know what they’re doing. Last year, six cattle were stolen from a farm in Cumbria. From a herd of 20, “they had selected the six best,” farmer Tony Hunter told a local paper. “The market value of the cattle is about £6,000, but they were worth a lot more than that to me. I have been here 52 years and never had any livestock taken. There was nothing I could do. They were in a livestock building you wouldn’t have any reason to lock up.”
It takes skill and knowledge to move livestock, too. Last year, two sheep were stolen from Andy Walter’s small flock, from a field close to a road near Sevenoaks. “There must have been a few of them because it is difficult to catch a sheep,” he says. “We did find an old horse rug over the barbed-wire fence where they may have climbed over.”
Jeremy Hosking, who farms in Cornwall, had more than 100 pregnant ewes taken this year. His sheep had gone out to pasture around local dairy farms. Just before Christmas they were scanned to check their pregnancies, and in February they started to be brought back for lambing. It was only when they were halfway through that Hosking’s shepherd noticed some were missing. “It turned out we had lost between 18 and 23 from five different flocks. We had mobs of 200, and you’re hardly going to notice 20 missing. It has to be a very professional operation. It was a wet winter and we would have seen mud on the road or other evidence, but we never did, so whoever is doing it has dogs and trailers, and took £10,000 worth of sheep in the dead of night.”
Thieves also have to know what to do with the animals – stealing cows or a herd of sheep isn’t like taking a tractor or a quad bike, which can be hidden in an outbuilding or on a remote piece of land until it’s sold. “You don’t have to feed it, it doesn’t make a noise,” says Price. “You then need to have an outlet to sell them on alive, or some means of slaughtering and butchering them. There is a lot involved and it does look like [thieves\ are going to extreme lengths to be organised. Typically we’re now seeing 50 to 100 or even more animals being taken in one attack, whereas a few years ago, we would see between three and a dozen sheep being taken – a much smaller scale.”
Last month, 136 sheep were stolen from Mark Gray’s farm in County Durham. They were taken from a field about a mile from his farmhouse, where they awaiting transportation for sale. “There were 300 in the field and when I came to gather them up there were 136 missing,” says Gray. “It was organised to the extent that 136 sheep would have had to have gone on to a reasonable-sized wagon – you can’t fit them in a trailer. And they would have needed a man with a dog to round them up and get them out of the field in the first place. [It would have needed\ a team of people and also a destination for them to go to.” The whole raid, which happened in the middle of the night, might have taken 20 minutes if it had run smoothly. He thinks they may have been run down a road on to a vehicle, or loaded in the gateway of the field. But heavy rain had washed away any tracks.
What does he think happened to them? “I think they’ve gone on to another farm somewhere where the tags could be cut out, and new tags put in, otherwise they couldn’t be sold at a mart or an abattoir, unless it’s a dodgy abattoir. We immediately rang round all the abattoirs to say look out for somebody bringing sheep in who doesn’t normally have Suffolk cross lambs like we do.”
Price has heard of men selling cheap meat from vans or in pubs. “But that small scale doesn’t account for the larger numbers [of animals that are taken\. We are concerned they are being sold on in larger amounts somehow.”
Sergeant Jim Edmonds, of Lancashire police, says: “There are two trains of thought. If it’s a breed that will fetch a decent price at market, they will breed off them, or they would take them to slaughter using dodgy slaughterhouses.” He believes most of the rustling is being done by other farmers, or farm workers, rather than organised criminal gangs from the cities, which adds an upsetting dimension to the crime. “It is highly suspected that it is the farming community that is offending against their peers,” he says. “The farming community is a trusting one. It is greed that’s driving it.”
It is a difficult crime to prevent. For some hill-sheep farmers, flocks are only counted a few times a year, so if a number go missing, it can be months before it is noticed. Lowland sheep are checked more regularly, but can be spread out over wide areas, often far from farmhouses. Marks on fleeces can be removed with chemicals, and ear tags replaced.
Over the last 18 months, Edmonds has been working on a rural crime strategy for Lancashire with the National Farmers’ Union, which was put into action last week. It has involved training officers in spotting suspicious movement of livestock, and knowing what to look for (such as paperwork and appropriate tags) when they stop a vehicle. They are also using DNA testing to link sheep suspected of being stolen back to their flock. A current case going through Lancaster magistrates court involves two men who were charged with the alleged theft of 58 pedigree sheep, worth £32,000.
DNA testing was also used to secure the first conviction for rustling in 25 years in 2012. John Kirkham, a farmer, pleaded guilty to stealing 55 pregnant ewes worth £15,000, and James Hesketh, a shepherd, was found guilty of handling stolen goods. The sheep were found on a farm in Durham and were traced back to their original farm in Chipping, Lancashire.
It is rare to get animals back, though. There are welfare concerns, that the animals won’t be kept or slaughtered according to humane standards. “They’re probably not going somewhere they will be treated well,” says Spurgeon, of his missing free-range piglets.
As for anyone buying black-market meat, even unwittingly, “you are taking a huge risk with your health. As well as harmful bacteria, such as salmonella or E coli, illegal meat could contain veterinary medicines that have not yet passed through the animal’s system,” says a spokesman for the Food Standards Agency. “People should only buy meat from sources they know and trust. Meat sold for human consumption must be from animals slaughtered in clean, hygienic premises approved by the FSA. We ensure they meet the highest standards of hygiene and animal welfare. This involves checking documents and ID when animals are brought to slaughter, and stamping carcasses fit for human consumption at the end of the slaughter process.”
There is also the issue of disease control, says Spurgeon. “You need to have a licence to move the animals around. It is a problem because of the biosecurity – they can spread anything, such as foot-and-mouth, very easily. There is a new disease, PED [porcine epidemic diarrhea\, which can wipe out almost a whole herd, and we haven’t got it here yet, but it could come and this could be a very easy way of spreading it.”
For already hard-pressed farmers, losing livestock can affect livelihoods. Even if the animals are insured (not all are), they face rising premiums. “The insurance can cost so much money,” says Spurgeon, “that it’s not worth it.”
Hosking counts his sheep regularly, and keeps them in smaller groups. Walters has since moved his sheep to a field away from the road. But there is a limit to how much they can do. “The fact that somebody has been close to the house, taken them out of the field without us realising,” says Gray. “Are they going to come back and do it again?”