Sheep rustlers have struck in the Harrogate district - stealing 50 lambs from a field in Nidderdale.
Police say the thieves struck at a farm in Fewston over a two-week period between August 28 and September 11, stealing 50 Texel and Suffolk lambs.
The news comes as insurers NFU Mutual reveal a huge 50 per cent spike in the cost of rustling from 2012 to 2013.
“We’ve got very high numbers of thefts,” warned rural affairs specialist Tim Price. “It does look as though more organised criminals are becoming involved.”
The latest crime figures revealed by the insurer show the North West and East are the two highest areas for sheep rustling in mainland Britain, with a huge spike in reports over the last three years.
“A few years ago it would be maybe a handful of sheep taken,” said Mr Price. “Now, we are getting many more.
“This week we’ve had 50. We’ve had reports of more than 100 at a time. That leads us to believe it’s becoming a lot more organised as a crime.”
Such acts of rustling, where thieves bundle sheep into livestock lorries or large vehicles for sale at auction marts or as meat, is one of the worst nightmares for farmers.
“Livestock rustling can have a devastating impact,” said Mr Price. “The returns on sheep are very low, and they can be completely wiped out if some are stolen.
“As well as the financial loss, it’s time consuming to build a flock back up - especially if it’s just lambs stolen without their mothers.”
NFU Mutual believes some stolen lambs are sold on at auction - but worry others may be slaughtered and sold as meat.
“Our fear is that a lot of the stolen livestock is going into the food chain,” said Mr Price. “That’s because they don’t appear anywhere else. They are being moved and stored outside of the strict guidelines.”
NFU Mutual is soon to start trialling a scheme in Lancashire, working with local farmers and police to try and track stolen sheep.
They are calling on auction marts to report anything suspicious and say new technologies, such as DNA tracking, may be available in the future to see where a sheep has come from.
“It’s about putting in place a much more robust way of tracking and identifying sheep,” said Mr Price. “We hope that scheme can be spread to other areas like North Yorkshire. In the meantime we are calling for farmers to take special care. Check flocks on a regular basis, lock gates, keep sheep away from areas with access to the public.
“Involve your neighbours - very often, when we speak to them a couple of days after an incident, they say they did hear something, or saw a strange vehicle in the early hours. Use them as the eyes and ears of the countryside. We can make it more difficult for thieves to get away.”
The 50 stolen lambs are said to be 18 mules and 32 continentals, with blue marks in the middle of their backs. Anyone with information is asked to call police on 101, quoting incident number 12140155763.