It’s a crime most assume has been consigned to the history books, a relic of border disputes between warring fiefdoms on the Scottish borders or groups of outlaws in the American mid-west.

But livestock rustling is well and truly alive in the Wiltshire countryside.

And this year police have seen a spike in the number of sheep and cattle being stolen from underneath farmers’ noses.

Earlier in the year, there was a spate of livestock thefts around Chippenham.

Mostly, sheep were the thieves' target, but in one theft half a dozen cattle were taken.

And Wiltshire Police rural crime officer PC Emily Thomas said on one occasion an unsuspecting homeowner even helped the thieves move some of the stolen sheep after they got into her garden in the early hours. 

PC Thomas said: “A lot of the public wouldn’t think to ring the police. We need to educate people to get to know their farmers.”

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The stolen animals are usually destined for the secretive black market meat trade, either sold to abattoirs or taken to illegal slaughterhouses in the cities.

The gangsters responsible may be no Tony Montana but they’re just as organised as the drug dealers sending youngsters with crack cocaine and heroin to Wiltshire’s towns. 

PC Marc Jackson, the other member of Wiltshire’s rural crime team, said: “They could be anybody. 

“For sheep, you will have to have a level of experience in handling livestock. To move sheep around at 2am in the pitch black, potentially with some working dogs and a couple of quad bikes you need to know what you’re doing. 

“This isn’t a chance of luck for the criminal. This is organised. They know what they’re doing, they have the skills, they have a location they know they’re going to take the sheep too.”

James Kimber, who farms in Christian Malford, near Chippenham, lost 15 ewes and 24 lambs to thieves last summer.

He said: “The most unpleasant thing is knowing that the thieves probably understood our movements.

“They must have come along with a trailer and just loaded them up. It may have been at night but it could have been in the afternoon, after we’d done our morning rounds.

“I’ve been told the animals may have ended up in what is apparently quite a thriving black market in stolen meat.

“Since the theft we’ve added some new security measures to the gates.”

Farmers have called on the authorities to introduce extra security measures, including a livestock DNA database to better trace animals in the food trade.

Wiltshire Lib Dem police and crime commissioner candidate Liz Webster, who farms north of Swindon, last night called for more support to tackle rural crime. 

“We need proper protection‎ and real resources to tackle this rural crime wave. Our farmers, food chain and police officers deserve‎ nothing less."

A new report by insurers NFU Mutual published earlier this month revealed the cost of claims in Wiltshire had doubled last year to over £1m. 

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PC Jackson suggested a relatively small number of high-value thefts could be behind the rise. For example, 10 tractors were stripped of their satellite GPS domes – around £100,000-worth of kit. 

During the lockdown there was a rise in the number of farm vehicles being taken, particularly quad bikes and Land Rovers. In the past equipment stolen in Wiltshire has been found in markets in eastern Europe, including tractors recovered in Poland and a quad bike in Latvia.

Lockdown also resulted in a rise in fly-tipping, particularly on Salisbury Plain, illegal fishing and metal detecting.

Hobby fishermen found themselves in trouble when they went to their local river, only to receive a fine for flouting rules requiring a permit. There were a number of reports around Trowbridge and Cricklade.

However, hare coursing is only starting to return following a lockdown lull. “If you have five men and a load of dogs driving around you stand out fairly easily,” said PC Jackson.

Wiltshire's rural crime team hopes an extra four officers will help tackle a rise in rural crime.The team is expecting an extra sergeant, PC and two special constables, in addition to its existing network of more than 30 officers trained to be specialists in dealing with wildlife and heritage crime.

PC Jackson said: “We need to be proactive, we need to be out there and communicating with the community.”