Farm animals worth an estimate £2.3 million were stolen from UK farms last year – with the cost of livestock rustling in the south west rising by a third.

New figures released today by rural insurer NFU Mutual reveal that rustling was one of the most costly crimes for British farmers, after vehicle and machinery theft.

Although the pandemic saw the cost of rustling decrease by a quarter in the UK overall, in the south west region the cost of animals stolen rose by more than a third to an estimated £320,000.

One of the reasons the UK total fell was the Midlands seeing a sharp fall of 44 per cent in 2020 followed the successful prosecution of livestock thieves who horrified farmers and the public in 2019 by barbarically slaughtering large numbers sheep in fields in Northamptonshire and leaving their remains behind.

Rebecca Davidson, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, said: “Last year’s overall fall is encouraging news to an industry which has worked hard through the pandemic to keep the nation fed.

“Tougher police enforcement certainly seems to have taken effect and the Coronavirus restrictions may have also deterred criminals who would have been easier to detect during lockdown.

“However, the latest figures from NFU Mutual’s claims are not a reason for complacency and we are deeply concerned this crime continues – even at a time of crisis. Modern rustling is a large-scale, organised crime causing suffering to animals, adding financial pressures to farmers and putting public health at risk.

“We are worried that when movement restrictions ease there could be a resurgence as thieves target the countryside again. We are urging farmers to remain vigilant and check stock regularly.”

Rustling has always been an aspect of farming but ten years ago NFU Mutual would rarely see claims of more than a dozen sheep taken at a time. The insurer now regularly receives reports of 30 to 100 sheep being taken in a single raid.

Rebecca added: “As well as causing untold suffering to ewes, who 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.”

To avoid buying unsafe stolen meat which has been slaughtered illegally, NFU Mutual advises members of the public not to buy meat from unusual sources and to look for the Red Tractor logo.

NFU Mutual is involved in a number of schemes with police forces around the UK which not only share valuable intelligence but also support the training of officers to work more closely with farmers and identify livestock theft. The insurer has also supported secure shelters for stolen farm animals so they can be cared for while police investigations take place.

Preventing rustling

Modern livestock thieves scout the countryside for targets and come equipped to steal with large vehicles. Protecting flocks requires increasingly sophisticated measures. To deter livestock thieves, NFU Mutual advises farmers to:

• Ensure stock is clearly marked and records are up to date

• When possible graze livestock in fields away from roads

• Check stock regularly – and vary times of feeding/check ups

• Consider a high-tech marking system such as TecTracer which puts thousands of coded microdot markers into a sheep’s fleece

• Join a Farm or Rural Watch scheme to share information about rural crime in your area

• Ask neighbours to report any suspicious sightings to the police, or to give information 100 pe rcent anonymously to the Crimestoppers Hotline 0800 555 111

• Dial 999 immediately if an incident is taking place – do not approach criminals