Cost of livestock rustling in East of England halves during pandemic

Herdwick sheep belonging to the National Trust - livestock rustling incidents in the East of England have plummeted during...

Lockdown may be deterring livestock rustlers, who appear to be a lot less active than usual in East Anglia - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Tougher enforcement and quieter roads during lockdown may be behind a drop in livestock rustling incidents in the East of England, according to farm insurers NFU Mutual.

It says the cost of rustling fell in most regions during the pandemic — except the South West, where there was a sharp rise. But overall an estimated £2.3m worth of animals were still stolen from UK farms, it said.

And it warned that figures could rise once lockdown eases. Suffolk police said that due to the nature of the crime, it can go unreported but urged affected farmers to come forward.

In the East of England, the cost of rustling has halved in the past year.

In 2018, the crime cost just under £94.6k, and in 2019 to more than £76.3k.

But by last year the insurer said the cost of rustling stood at £35.5k. That represented a fall of 19% between 2018 and 2019 and an even bigger 54% drop between 2019 and 2020.

It still remains one of the most costly crimes for farmers — after vehicle and machinery theft, NFU Mutual said.

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The South West saw the cost of animals stolen rise to around £320k last year. But the Midlands saw a sharp fall of 44% in 2020 after 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.

NFU Mutual rural affairs specialist Rebecca Davidson 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.”

Although there have always been incidents of small-scale rustling, the insurer said a decade ago it would rarely see claims of more than a dozen sheep taken at a time. Now it regularly receives reports of 30 to 100 sheep being taken in a single raid, it said.

A Suffolk Constabulary spokesman said: “Livestock rustling is something that we are conscious that does exist in rural areas, but due to the nature of the crime it is rarely reported to us. We do urge vigilance though to any suspicious behaviour and to report it.”