By Martin Evans
Consumers could be at risk as fears grow that thousands of animals stolen from farms each year are ending up on the dinner plate
It is a crime more usually associated with the Wild West, but farmers across the UK are reporting a huge increase in cases of livestock rustling.
Rising meat prices for consumers are thought to be fuelling an explosion in the theft of sheep and cattle with tens of thousands of animals being stolen from farms each year.
The crimes is a particular problem in Lancashire, the North East and Northern Ireland but farming and insurance groups are warning that the problem is on the rise everywhere.
Cases of rustling went up a staggering 170 per cent in 2011 and have continued to rise steadily since then.
Last year the cost of insurance claims associated with rustling went up by almost a quarter with estimates suggesting some 90,000 sheep are being stolen each year.
With very few of the stolen livestock turning up alive, it is feared the vast majority of the stolen animals are being slaughtered illegally and then ending up on people’s plates.
This has led to concern over food hygiene and also fears that moving animals around without proper bio security could spark another foot and mouth outbreak.
In previous decades rural crime tended to be targeted on the theft of farm tools and machinery, especially agricultural vehicles such as tractors and combine harvesters.
But with more advanced security making it increasingly difficult to steal large equipment, thieves have begun turning to the more traditional crime of rustling.
Tim Price, a rural affairs specialist with the insurer NFU Mutual said those involved were obviously people with the skills and experience needed to handle large numbers of animals quietly and efficiently.
He said: “Criminals are increasingly turning to rural areas because security in urban communities with the prevalence of CCTV cameras is making it more difficult to get away with things in towns and cities.
“We used to see small numbers of stock being stolen, three to five animals at a time, but that has increased dramatically with up to 200 animals being taken in a raid. The rustling is being carried out on a much more organised scale.
“Livestock is a lot more difficult to steal than a tractor. It baas and kicks and you can’t just hide it under a tarpaulin for a while until the heat is off.
“Those responsible have obvious livestock handling skills and experience to be able to move large numbers of animals quietly and quickly.
“The increase in rustling has also coincided with the increase in the cost of meat.
“We are seeing very few of these animals turning up alive so the assumption is that they are being slaughtered and are ending up in the food chain.”
Last year rural crime was estimated to have cost the British economy around £44.5 million, up more than five per cent on 2012.