ORGANISED criminals are believed to be behind a dramatic rise in sheep-rustling across the North East, with Northumberland being among the hardest-hit places in England.
The latest incident happened at Belsay farm at the end of September, when 86 texel lambs were spirited away in what police say was a planned raid which must have involved a suitable wagon or trailer.
But they have also admitted they are struggling to track down the rustlers, who could be shipping the animals as far as mainland Europe.
Last year, thieves took 150 sheep from farms near Kirkwhelpington, Harle and Bardon Mill.
Chief Supt Mark Dennett is in charge of policing 2,000 square miles of Northumberland and admits his officers are struggling for information.
He said: “I have been a police officer for 29 years and there have always been incidents of livestock going missing – but not on this scale.
“I believe this is organised crime. The gangs must be using large vehicles.
“We’ve had officers out stopping vehicles, including the huge articulated lorries that carry sheep, but when we stop vehicles, everything appears to be in order.
“We have very good relations with the farming community and we normally get lots of information on other rural crimes, such as the theft of quad bikes, through Farmwatch.
“The farming community in Northumberland is very close-knit.
“The vast majority of butchers and wholesale suppliers know exactly where their meat comes from.
“But one of the most frustrating aspects of livestock theft is that we are getting no intelligence about what is actually happening.”
Northumbria Police estimate the value of livestock stolen rose from £9,000 in 2008 to £39,000 last year. Sheep sell for around £100 each.
Police are uncertain as to whether the sheep are stolen in one raid or several batches.
They also suspect that the gangs know how to quickly round up sheep and lambs.
Chief Supt Dennett added: “It’s speculation but I suspect the sheep could be transported out of the region, or even loaded on ships bound for Europe.
“Either way, it’s crucial that we get information on who is doing this and catch those responsible.”
While the theft of such a large number of sheep may seem incredible, such crimes are becoming more regular, according to farmers.
NFU Mutual, the insurance company which has to deal with many of the claims, says 33,000 sheep were stolen in the first eight months of this year.
The number of raids has risen by around 80 per cent in the last year and is costing farmers across England, Scotland and Wales more than £5million a year.
A spokeswoman for NFU Mutual said the North East was the worst-affected region in Britain.
She added: “During the last decade, livestock rustling has been at historically low levels, while rural thieves concentrated on easy pickings – stealing quad bikes, tractors and expensive power tools from farms.
“Now, high meat prices and improved security on farm vehicles appear to be leading to a resurgence in livestock rustling.”
Anyone with information about the thieves can contact Northumbria Police on 03456 043043 or the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.