LEADING rural insurer NFU Mutual is advising Cumbrian farmers to take all possible steps to protect their machinery, livestock and equipment from thieves who may take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to steal in the countryside.

The insurer says there are concerns ranging from increased opportunistic theft as people get more desperate, to more organised groups stealing larger numbers and cashing in on higher lamb prices.

“We know from previous events such as serious flooding and the last Foot and Mouth outbreak that criminals do target farms at times of crisis,” said Rebecca Davidson, Rural Affairs Specialist at NFU Mutual.

“For this reason we are urging farmers to take all possible precautions and to check their livestock regularly to deter rustlers taking advantage of higher lamb prices.

According to figures from NFU Mutual, the cost of livestock theft has already risen by 19.4 percent in the past two years, with farm animals worth £3m stolen from UK farms in 2019 alone. “Rustling ranges from opportunistic crimes with people stealing one or two lambs for their own consumption, to large-scale organised thefts which have been steadily increasing with 50-100 sheep taken at a time.

“The black market in meat is big business for organised gangs who are keen to take advantage of the rise in lamb prices, remote rural locations and stretched police forces who are supporting the emergency response to the coronavirus outbreak.”

NFU Mutual is warning the public that meat from stolen animals poses a real threat to human health as it may have been butchered in unhygienic conditions, and from animals which have had medical treatment making it unfit for consumption.