11 Aug 2014

Sheep rustling surge blamed on organised gangs

Rural crime is rising, with tractor thefts linked to export gangs, but it is the organised gangs rustling sheep that really concerns farmers.

Sheep rustling and tool theft account for rural crime increasing by 5 per cent in the past year to £44m, according to a report by NFU Mutual.

While tractor thefts have been attributed to eastern European gangs, the National Sheep Association (NSA) and farmers told Channel 4 News that police must take more action against organised gangs behind sheep rustling.

Joanne Briggs,of the NSA said gangs may be taking advantage of higher prices.

“We had a much better trade last year. When sheep become a lot more valuable there’s more theft. It’s very easy for 150 sheep to go missing, you only need a trailer, people and a dog.

“We assume it’s organised gangs, but you need expertise, you can’t just go in and gather them up. We need more police stopping vehicles acting suspiciously.”

Sheep rustling was close to an all-time peak last year as it rose by 25 per cent, with Northern Ireland hit particularly badly by the thefts.

One farmer in Devon turned to dyeing his sheep bright yellow after getting so frustrated at the sheep rustling.

Councillor John Heard runs a sheep farm in Okehampton, Devon, and told Channel 4 News that he also attributes the problem to gangs. He says that he is again considering dying his sheep.

“It must be an gang problem. And there must be a rogue farmer who is able to handle the stock and take it to a slaughterhouse outside of Devon. There’s places in and around the big cities that will do it.

“Fixing it is all about rural intelligence, but most flocks have tags in them so if they turn up they should be traceable.”

“If we get a problem, we might dye the sheep again. Bright yellow worked quite well last time.”

In 25 attacks on Swandale, North Yorkshire over just one year, rustlers stole £120,000 worth of sheep from farms in the area.

Exporting stolen tractors

Rural insurer NFU Mutal says that thieves are targeting counties in the east of England to steal and export tractors to eastern Europe.

Older tractor models with less sophisticated alarms and immoblisers are being targeted, and then sold to developing nations.

“There is no doubt that both opportunist criminals and members of international criminals are targeting farms,” said Tim Price, rural affairs specialist with NFU Mutual.

“While the first group will often move on to an easier target if they see a farm that has even basic security in place, the latter are professionally organised with a specific target.”

The gangs committing the crimes could be earning millions of pounds by stealing tractors worth as much as £80,000.

Earlier this year a Romanian gang that operated out of Spain, and stole tractors in France, was arrested after stealing vehicles worth £2.5million.

Tools, quad-bikes, fuel and machinery remain the most common items targeted by thieves, but theft of livestock is the sixth most common theft, ahead of tractors and trailers.

Cambridgeshire is the county hit heavist by rural crime last year, with the cost of claims reaching £2.7million.

NFU Mutual’s farm security checklist to deter theft includes: “Mark livestock clearly and count them regularly” and “Keep gates to farm yards closed whenever possible”.