New figures released by rural insurer NFU Mutual reveal that farm animals worth an estimated £2.3 million were stolen from UK farms last year, making rustling one of the most costly crimes for British farmers after vehicle and machinery theft.
Although the pandemic saw the cost of rustling in the UK decrease by a quarter, in the south-west region the cost of animals stolen rose by over a third to an estimated £320,000.
In the midlands, a sharp fall of 44% in 2020 followed the successful prosecution of livestock thieves who horrified farmers and the public in 2019 by barbarically slaughtering large numbers of 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 10 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."
'Rustling is causing high levels of anxiety for farmers'
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.
NFU Mutual has welcomed the successful prosecution and jailing of criminals responsible for horrific killings and butchery of sheep in fields, which shocked the nation in 2019.
In November 2020, a further joint operation between Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Police resulted in the conviction of a man for the theft and slaughter of sheep in Rugby.
More recently in January this year, a 20-year-old man and a 16-year-old boy were sentenced in connection with the theft of a lamb in South Warwickshire.
Carol Cotterill, from the Warwickshire Police Rural Crime Team, said:
Livestock thefts can be extremely distressing to both the animals who suffer, and also to the farmers who bred and raised them. This is not to mention the financial implications involved.
"Our Rural Crime Team is determined to reduce rustling offences and to investigate when they do occur, to ensure those who are responsible are brought to justice for their actions," she concluded.