Rural groups have warned farmers to be extra ‘vigilant’ following an alarming rise in large-scale sheep thefts during lockdown.
It comes after recent weeks have seen hundreds of livestock stolen, with social media awash with images documenting increased rustling activity, including the illegal butchery of sheep.
Pointing to the devastating spike in targeted thefts, alongside confirmed reports of illegal abattoirs operating across the country, NFU Mutual rural affairs specialist Rebecca Davidson said: “Recent incidents have demonstrated that rustling has become big business for organised criminal gangs, with rustlers getting more skilled and better equipped, quickly loading farm animals on to trailers late at night.
“We have also received reports of sheep being butchered in farmers’ fields in the past two months and the illegal slaughter of sheep in the field has been a rising trend in recent years.”
Ms Davidson warned reports had sparked fears meat from stolen animals could be entering the food chain illegally through the black market, which undermined animal welfare standards and posed a ‘real threat’ to human health.
And according to NFU Mutual’s initial claims data for April, there has been a ‘worrying double-digit’ percentage rise on the cost of rustling up the year before.
Martin Robinson, a mixed farmer from Scunthorpe, who has had 20 ewes stolen in the last two years, echoed this and highlighted the situation was ‘getting worse’.
He said: “Just recently our local Trading Standards agency were called out to a fly-tipping incident in the back streets of our town, which revealed the remains of skin, offal and the ear tags of three of our sheep.
“And just last year, we apprehended a male in a getaway car, who Humberside Police later arrested after finding a makeshift sheep pen at the back of his house and a deep freeze full of meat.”
Mr Robinson claimed the animals were being taken alive to be used for ‘religious festivals’ but warned police handling of the incident had been ‘useless’, adding: “The offenders were shockingly not charged due to a series of failings on behalf of Humberside Police.
“Not only is this incredibly damaging for us financially but it also risks seeing animals recently vaccinated, some of which need long withdraw periods, entering into the human food chain.”
Humberside Police later apologised for its handling of the case.
Responding, NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said this spike in illegal sheep butcheries seriously compromised the high animal welfare standards British sheep farmers worked hard to maintain, ’right through’ to the abattoir.
He added: “It is therefore highly distressing both emotionally and financially for farmers to have animals stolen or to see the way they are being treated, and of course rustlers and thieves are not going to limit their choices to lambs destined for slaughter meaning that prime breeding stock and even pedigree animals are being taken.”
Due to the ’prolific’ nature of the issue, farm organisations and police are now urging people to report any suspicious sales of meat.
Ms Davidson said: “To avoid buying stolen meat, which has been slaughtered in unregulated abattoirs, NFU Mutual advises members of the public to look for the Red Tractor Logo and not to buy meat from unusual sources.”
Efforts to crack down on the issue have seen a series of arrests made by police across counties, after a string of illegal, makeshift abattoirs were uncovered.
NFU Mutual is also involved in a number of schemes with police forces, which share intelligence and support the training of officers to work more closely with farmers to identify livestock.