It’s 1720 and on a bitterly cold morning a gang of Welsh drovers are moving hundreds of sheep on foot through the mud and the mist. A loud whistle rips through the freezing air as one bedraggled man signals to another in an effort to help guide their precious flock through the dark undergrowth. Market is still several days away and the lonely road, with its high banks and hedges, provides only temporary protection from sheep stealers who stalk the countryside.
This scene is entirely imaginary but it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of a period when rogues and vagabonds would turn their hand to rustling. Hard times can drive people to crime and 300 years ago, picking off drovers was easy.
In fact, the notorious 18th-century horse thief and highwayman Dick Turpin began his life of crime this way. He started out as a butcher who fenced deer meat stolen by a gang working in Epping Forest. It seems that down the centuries there’s often been a thriving black market for sheep, cattle, pigs and poultry.
Even today most villages have historic tales of the local poacher who’d turn a bit of petty crime into a profitable side line. Who could blame a hungry man if he helped himself to a few vegetables in the fields, a bit of game or the occasional sheep? The lords and ladies of the grand estates were deemed rich enough to not miss the odd rabbit, pheasant or even deer. The village poacher was always known in the local pub and plenty of people would have been more than happy to do business with him.
Today we can view all this with nostalgia and even affection for the rough diamond who wouldn’t do anybody harm. Sadly the harsh reality is far less romantic. The modern livestock thief is a ruthless and often violent criminal. He is usually part of an organised gang that will use dogs, bolt cutters and even guns. There’s an alarming rise in the use of firearms by modern sheep rustlers and their behaviour is callous. One farmer in the Midlands was devastated to discover that his whole flock had been shot in the neck during the night. The criminals then hauled the best carcasses into a van leaving the remaining sheep dead or dying in the field, covered in blood.
Driven by hunger
It’s all a long way from my experience as an agricultural student working on one of the best known country estates in the North of England. It was during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, a strike that lasted nearly a year. The landowners discovered that they were losing sheep and deer from the parkland as hungry families, struggling to put a meal on the table, came out of the cities looking for food. To my surprise, some of the estate workers had sympathy with these poachers.
But nearly 30 years on, the practice of rustling has become big business due to the recent rise in meat and livestock prices. The average sale price of sheep has more than doubled over the past three years and minced lamb has gone up by almost 30 percent over the same period.
It’s no coincidence that the resurgence in rustling comes at a time of economic hardship and the facts are startling. In 2011, lamb and sheep thefts increased 250 percent on the year before. The figures from insurer NFU Mutual reveal that well in excess of 60,000 sheep were stolen last year along with hundreds of cattle and pigs and thousands of game birds. The estimated cost to the industry is more than £6m. Of course, that figure only accounts for insured farmers so the real picture could be far worse.
As you’d expect, today’s rural communities aren’t taking this lying down. Lancashire Police are spot-checking vehicles carrying livestock. Volunteer sheep-watchers have been recruited at a Somerset nature reserve to help prevent theft. And, in April 2011, an enterprising Dartmoor farmer who had lost 200 sheep from his farm near Okehampton even dyed his flock bright orange in a bid to deter the thieves.
In addition, modern technology can now help tackle this age-old problem: electronic ID tags; flock numbering; CCTV and alarm installations; Farm Watch schemes – which aim to fight all rural crime – and email alerts are all part of the war against the criminals.
So rustlers be warned. There are lots of eyes and ears in the countryside.