LONDON // The recession coupled with rising prices is being blamed for a dramatic surge in rural crime in Britain, with even Queen Elizabeth suffering as cattle were rustled from a farm on her Sandringham estate.
Police and insurers report that everything from sheep stealing to heating oil thefts are on the increase across the UK. While many of the crimes involve the theft of a few sheep or piglets to be slaughtered and sold on to friends, there have been increasing incidents of organised rustling in the past year involving 100 or more animals.
Police are also in the throes of a national campaign aimed at improving farm equipment security after the discovery of syndicates stealing tractors and other heavy machinery and shipping it abroad. The stoklen plant is often sold to Eastern Europe, although one tractor stolen in south-west England last year was recently traced to Cyprus.
Last week, police in Cornwall disclosed that the theft of machinery and tools from farms had risen by more than 20 per cent in the past year, despite a fall in burglaries nationally of nine per cent.
Police forces reported an alarming rise in the thefts of domestic heating oil from tanks in rural areas after a rise in price of up to 70 per cent over the past year.
David Gale, a beef and sheep farmer in Sussex said recently: "It seems right now that the countryside is under siege from all sides. The problem is that there is only so much you can do - I have a pretty ferocious German shepherd patrolling my farmyard but how do you protect livestock scattered over several hundred acres of fields bordering quiet country lanes?"
The National Farmers' Union (NFU) has reported a five-fold increase in sheep rustling over the past 18 months, with the problem worst in the north of England, Wales and in the Scottish border areas.
Tim Price, a spokesman for the NFU Mutual insurance company, said: "We have had about 10 years when rustling was at a very low level and now it has taken off again.
"We think there are two factors: the price of meat has shot up, and the recession. In the past when there is a downturn in the economy, rural crime goes up."
Although normally only a few sheep are taken, 271 ewes and lambs were stolen overnight from a farm in Lancashire in the past year and another 200 from fields in Wales.
With the price of sheep carcasses having risen at market from £2.70 (Dh15.75) per kilogram to £4.80 in little over a year, the financial inducements are obvious.
It is not, however, only sheep being targeted. In an audacious raid last year at a farm on the Queen's estate at Sandringham in Norfolk, 19 Red Poll cattle worth £15,000 were stolen.
Almost 500 piglets also disappeared from a farm in Tamworth in central England. Thieves even targeted 18 hives and 800,000 bees worth £6,000 at a farm in rural Shropshire, near the Welsh border.
Thefts of farm machinery have also markedly increased. "There's evidence that good police work against thieves stealing luxury cars has driven them to target tractors instead," Mr Price said.
"We're talking about machines worth £100,000 in some cases, which is every bit as tempting as a Ferrari. There's a big market for them overseas and, unlike Ferraris, they're often left outside with pretty basic protection."
The current police campaign is aimed at persuading farmers to adopt tighter security measures and to fit better anti-theft equipment and satellite tracking devices to their tractors, quad bikes and other machinery.
Det Chief Insp Mark Hooper, who heads the Association of Chief Police Officers' vehicle crime intelligence service, said: "Close cooperation between the police, tractor manufacturers and customers is essential to tackle criminals who are targeting farm machinery."
Mr Hooper said steps were being taken to enable "recovery operations to be launched very quickly and co-ordinated through police, ports and international police force via Interpol and Europol".
The latest scourge to hit country dwellers is a rise in the theft of heating oil, normally from tanks in their gardens.
More than 1.5 million homes in Britain, mainly in rural areas, rely on oil to fuel their central heating systems and soaring prices have resulted in a recent surge in thefts with the culprits standing to make £2,000 from siphoning off the contents of a single tank.
Ian Johnson, from the NFU, told the BBC on Friday that thieves "will do anything" to steal fuel.
He said anecdotal evidence suggests they are using increasingly sophisticated tactics, "including watching the depots, following the lorries, seeing where fuel is delivered and helping themselves to the contents".
Isolated homes are particularly vulnerable and police are advising homeowners to fit padlocks on their tanks and even to consider installing alarms.