Sheep thefts in Britain likely connected to rising global food prices

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2011; 12:41 AM

IN WINDERMERE, ENGLAND The rolling hills of the English Lake District, home to the stories of Peter Rabbit and endless acres of misty farms, seem the last place on Earth for a crime wave. But farmer, beware: Thieves are stalking the puffy white gold of the British countryside.

"They want our sheep," said Andrew Allen, 46, surveying his flock, now thinned after the recent theft of 45 head.

Allen is one of 19 farmers to fall prey to sheep rustlers in the majestic lake region over the past 12 months, with the thefts here only one part of a bizarre surge in rural crime that has seen incidents of sheep rustling skyrocket across Britain.

The culprit? Globalization.

The ovine crime wave began, insurance company and farm union officials say, after global food prices started jumping again. With bouts of bad weather in major producers such as Russia, Argentina and Australia and increasing demand in Asia, the price for many grains is now busting through the record highs they set in 2008. But meat prices have also surged, particularly for lamb.

Because of escalating world demand and scaled-back production in such nations as New Zealand, a farmer's price per pound for lamb here is now about 35 percent higher than in 2008. The 45 head of sheep stolen from Allen in late September, for instance, were worth $6,400 - or twice the price they would have fetched five years ago.

Rising prices have fueled what authorities here describe as a thriving black market for lamb and mutton, with stolen animals butchered in makeshift slaughterhouses before their meat is illegally sold to small grocery stores, pubs and penny-wise consumers.

But farmers here are counting more than lost sheep. Britain is also witnessing a surge in the theft of tractors and other farm machinery, with authorities blaming organized crime rings smuggling the stolen equipment into Eastern Europe - where farmers are rushing to cash in on high grain prices by cultivating more and more land.

Local authorities in Britain are racing to beef up "farmwatch" programs, with some ranchers in the picturesque countryside long used to sleeping with their doors unlocked and with keys in their tractors now installing video surveillance equipment on their properties.

"I'd see people parked at the roadside and looking at the lambs, and I'd chat with them, quite proud of the sheep myself," said Paul Taylor, 31, whose farm in High Legh, a small village in northwest England, was burgled of 100 sheep worth $16,000. But "nothing is innocent anymore. Now when people drive past, you take their license plate numbers down."

Soaring value of lamb

The rural crime wave in Britain underscores the ways in which high food prices are rippling across the world. Although sky-high prices in 2008 eased during the Great Recession, they have shot up again, in part because of bad weather, climbing oil prices and resurgent demand as the global economy recovers.

This month, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said that its food price index - which includes wholesale costs for such commodities as wheat, corn, sugar, dairy products and meat - had climbed to a record high.

In 2008, high food prices sparked bloody riots in Africa and Asia, and even contributed to bringing down the government in Haiti. In recent weeks, food prices have again contributed to fresh bouts of unrest in Tunisia and Algeria, with some analysts fearing more riots.

Nevertheless, other experts say that abundant harvests in Africa this year, and the still relatively low prices of some grains, including rice, may prevent a more serious wave of violence from recurring this year.

"We are alarmed by the surge, but we do not yet think we have reached the point of a new crisis," said Abdolreza Abbassian, senior economist at the FAO. "Some of the conditions that existed in 2008, like poor harvests in Africa, are not true now,"

Still, high food prices are having other kinds of side effects, such as the resurgence of sheep rustling.

With lamb prices increasing, authorities from Australia to Turkey to Spain are also warning of thieves. But few places have taken as much notice of the surge as Britain, where sheep are as much a part of cherished country life as fresh-baked scones and clotted cream.

"We have been watching what's happening in Britain in amazement, and wondering, frankly, why it isn't happening yet in the United States since lamb prices are at record highs," said Judy Malone, director of industry information at the American Sheep Industry Association in Englewood, Colo. "But I think it has a lot to do with the fact that lamb is so much more popular in Britain than it is in the United States. Everybody there follows the price closely."

An economic blow

In Britain, the crime wave is hitting sheep farmers just as their fortunes were beginning to turn. Reduced subsidies have made it less lucrative to raise sheep here in recent years, and though Britain is still the largest lamb producer in Europe, flock numbers have fallen by 21 percent since 2000. Now, just as prices are high, sheep farmers have been hit with a rash of thefts, with more than 10,000 head reported stolen in 2010, double the figure a year earlier.

"There is no doubt that this is directly related to food prices," said Tim Price, spokesman for the National Farmers Union Mutual, Britain's largest agricultural insurer. "The prices went up, and so did the thefts."

Police, however, say their limited resources in the countryside have made it difficult to break up sheep theft rings. Nevertheless, given how difficult it is to round up the animals, many think that rogue farmers or slaughterhouse operators may be involved.

In Windermere, where local gift shops celebrate sheep with stuffed toys, mugs, even milk chocolate "sheep droppings," Allen said he was devastated when he noticed that his flock had shrunk. "I was going to give 'em their delousing dip, you know, everyone likes a good bath, when I noticed they were a bunch of them missing," he said.

How could he tell in a field of 600 sheep?

"Because," he said, "a farmer knows."

Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.

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