The Sunday Herald has learned that Scottish farmers are struggling to deal with the increasing costs of rustling as organised thieves target large numbers of livestock across the country. With the price of meat on the rise, livestock is being stolen, slaughtered illegally and sold on the black market.
The rural crime wave is estimated to have cost Scottish farmers more than £250,000 in 2012, with farmers UK-wide having to foot a bill of more than £6 million. A standard sheep costs between £60 and £400.
Figures from NFU Mutual, which insures three-quarters of the UK's farmers, show a 170% increase in rustling between 2010 and 2011 and a further 3.6% increase in 2012. The average cost of claims has also increased, indicating that more livestock is being taken in each raid.
A spokesman for NFU Mutual said: "Rustling is one of the world's oldest crimes. Since the first cavemen kept goats, it has been a feature of farming. However, the worrying trend today is that, instead of small numbers being taken in an attack, we are seeing very large numbers of sheep being stolen.
"Until 2010, livestock rustling was at historically low levels, as rural thieves concentrated on easy pickings such as quad bikes, tractors and expensive power tools.
"Now, however, high meat prices appear to have led to a resurgence in livestock rustling. In the last year we have seen a worrying increase"
The insurer estimates that more than 69,000 sheep were stolen from UK farms in 2012, along with hundreds of cows and pigs and thousands of game birds, leading to warnings about the dangers of buying meat on the black market.
The Food Standards Agency in Scotland last year said anyone buying under-the-counter meat was "playing Russian roulette with their health".
The NFU Mutual spokesman added: "We believe most of the stolen livestock goes straight into the food chain, with a significant risk that it may be slaughtered, butchered or stored in unhygienic conditions, putting public health at risk."
Farmers are being urged to take extra precautions to combat rustling, including reporting suspicious vehicles or activity to the police. The National Farmers' Union Scotland (NFUS) has urged farmers to sign up to their local Farm Watch scheme, which lets them know about any suspicious activity in their area.
NFUS spokeswoman Sarah Anderson said: "There is a crime wave in rural areas which is extremely worrying for all those who live and work in our countryside. As well as the additional costs and huge inconvenience of losing and having to replace valuable equipment, fuel or livestock, there is also the emotional upset of knowing that criminals have targeted your property.
"The NFUS is working closely with local police forces and is involved in setting up and promoting Farm Watch schemes."