Thieves have stolen livestock worth £3 million in the last year, with some animals butchered in farmers’ fields and the meat then sold on the black market.
Large-scale sheep thefts, where rustlers steal between 50 and 100 animals in a single raid, have contributed to the spike, according to statistics released by NFU Mutual.
Livestock theft claims have jumped 19.4 per cent since 2017, making it one of the costliest crimes to the farming sector, along with agricultural vehicle and machinery theft.
The Mutual’s rural affairs specialist Rebecca Davidson said: “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.”
Ms Davidson said rural criminals’ tactics had changed over the last 10 years.
“We would rarely see claims of more than a dozen sheep taken in one go,” she said.
“We are now regularly getting reports of 50 to a 100 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."
Ms Davidson said one of the most ‘alarming’ trends was the illegal slaughter of animals in the field.
“We believe that meat from stolen animals is being sold on the black market and undermining welfare standards,” she added.
“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.”
To avoid buying stolen meat, consumers have been advised to look for the Red Tractor logo and not to buy meat from unusual sources.
Help prevent livestock thefts on your farm
Contacting the police
Dial 999 immediately if an incident is taking place - do not approach criminals
NFU Mutual has established that there are three distinct types of livestock thefts currently taking place: