Police are hunting for a Bo Peep bandit who stole 11 sheep from a field in Yorkshire – in what insurers say is an epidemic of livestock theft with a view to selling meat and animal products on the black market.

A gang of rustlers is believed to have stolen 11 sheep from a field in Hutton Mulgrave, Whitby, sometime between 7pm on May 15 and 5am on May 17.

Police say livestock theft is a national rural crime priority that insurers estimate cost farmers around £2.7million last year – making it one of the costliest forms of agricultural crime behind that of machinery and equipment theft. 

And those who have lost animals to thieves, like animal carer Laura Windle, believe they are being swiped for their meat – and sent to slaughterhouses who turn a blind eye to where the animals are coming from. 

Ms Windle, 38, had four sheep stolen on May 1 from her animal shelter, My Pets Palace near Derby, by people she suspects will have taken them to a slaughterhouse.

Laura Windle, 38, had some of her sheep stolen at the start of May - and believes they may have been taken to a slaughterhouse

Laura Windle, 38, had some of her sheep stolen at the start of May – and believes they may have been taken to a slaughterhouse

One of the four sheep Laura Windle had stolen at the start of May

One of the four sheep Laura Windle had stolen at the start of May

Two of the four sheep Laura Windle had stolen from her animal shelter near Derby at the start of May 

She said the theft of the sheep was 'disgusting and dispiriting', adding that the sheep had been her pets

She said the theft of the sheep was ‘disgusting and dispiriting’, adding that the sheep had been her pets

One of the four sheep Laura Windle had stolen at the start of May

One of the four sheep Laura Windle had stolen at the start of May

Two of the four sheep Laura Windle had stolen from her animal shelter near Derby at the start of May 

Farming insurer NFU Mutual says livestock theft cost farmers an estimated £2.7million last year - and has previously warned of a black market trade in illicit meat

Farming insurer NFU Mutual says livestock theft cost farmers an estimated £2.7million last year – and has previously warned of a black market trade in illicit meat

The carer, who shares videos of her looking after a variety of animals on TikTok as @swearingshepherdess, told MailOnline: ‘The price has gone up dramatically for lamb – it’s been high for quite a while.

‘It’s so easily done by someone that knows how and they would’ve gotten a good price for them, for the animals.

‘There are dodgy people in the farming industry that know how to slit an animal’s throat, who are trying to make a bit of change on the side.

‘They know what they’re doing – they know how to steal a sheep, how to get them and how to get rid of them. 

‘But these weren’t sheep to be sent off to slaughter. They were my pets. They were like my kids. I bottle-fed them.

‘It’s disgusting and dispiriting.’

The theft in Whitby in the middle of May involved 11 Texel Cross hoggs with a mixture of white and brown faces, North Yorkshire Police said. 

Some may have orange spray marks on their shoulder – and all were tagged in both ears with UK flock numbers.

PC Jack Donaldson, from the service’s rural task force, said: ‘Livestock theft causes a significant financial loss to farmers, totalling £2.7m in 2022 according to NFU Mutual figures.

‘The emotional and mental health impacts on farmers can be devastating. 

‘Farmers often raise their stock from the day they are born, and for them to disappear overnight into criminal hands causes great anxiety and stress, as animals are often mistreated by the criminals.’

Farming insurance body NFU Mutual says it ‘regularly’ receives claims from customers of more than 50 sheep being taken in a single raid – and that it costs farmers £2.7million every year in lost income.

More than 70 sheep were stolen from a farm in the Merthyr Cynog area of Powys, Wales between December and February.

And West Mercia Police has been probing a spate of sheep thefts after a pregnant ewe and lambs were stolen over the course of several days in March. 

Sarah Sceats, North Worcestershire’s rural and business crime officer, said it was likely the thefts were linked to the black market.

‘We would further warn potential thieves that stealing lambs at this time of year is not only a criminal offence but that in any case they would also not be getting much meat on the bones,’ she said in April.

But thieves are going after domesticated sheep too: in February, a Swindon woman had her pet sheep, named Sheila, stolen. Mandie Read believes the animal was stolen for its meat. 

Rural crime is believed to largely be down to organised crime gangs deliberately targeting agricultural businesses (file picture)

Rural crime is believed to largely be down to organised crime gangs deliberately targeting agricultural businesses (file picture)

Police say black market-traded meat will be of poor quality and could carry health risks

Police say black market-traded meat will be of poor quality and could carry health risks

It is feared that slaughterhouses could be turning a blind eye to the trade in illicit meat (stock picture)

It is feared that slaughterhouses could be turning a blind eye to the trade in illicit meat (stock picture)

She told BBC News: ‘What they don’t realise is it’s not just an animal, it’s a family member.

‘It broke our hearts. They might as well have taken my dog, my heart wouldn’t be broken any less. She’s a real big loss.

‘It just makes me angry. I live on my own, my animals are my life. What gives them the right?’

Organised crime gangs are thought to have moved into livestock theft in order to make money from selling meat on the black market, and to have stolen rams prized for their use in breeding.

They are also believed to be stealing sheep and buying and selling them at auction in order to launder money.

But it is farms that are left counting the cost, having to build up their flock from scratch if their herds are stolen from under them. 

And there are risks to the public from buying dodgy meat too – with no guarantee of food safety standards being adhered to by black market traders.

A recent report from the National Rural Crime Unit (NRCU) – made up of police forces and agricultural bodies across the country – concluded there was an ‘unequivocal’ link between organised gangs and rural crime.

The issue of livestock theft is one it is taking seriously. NFU Mutual is funding the creation of a new livestock theft officer role at the NRCU which has been filled by Martin Beck, a former rural police officer in Devon and Cornwall.

Mr Beck, who is spearheading a new intelligence-gathering operation called Operation Foldyard that aims to stamp out livestock theft, says the crime ‘needs to be exposed for the harm it is causing’.

Hannah Binns, rural affairs spokesperson at NFU Mutual, told MailOnline: ‘Livestock theft is consistently one of the costliest crimes affecting our farmers, and its impact is felt keenly across the industry.

‘As well as the economic cost, livestock theft can cause huge worry to farmers about the welfare of the stolen animals.

‘It can also impact directly on consumers, as stolen livestock may be sold on without proper documentation or butchered without the necessary safety and hygiene requirements.

‘It is a serious problem across the country.’ 

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