Shooting and rural communities warned over rise in rural crime.

In a recent incident, a flock of 271 sheep, worth up to £25,000, was taken from a field in Ramsbottom, near Bury.

Farmers, water bailiffs and gamekeepers are on their guard, particularly with game bird poults due to be released in the coming weeks.

A snapshot survey of NFU Mutual branches suggests that claims from farming communities has increased in recent months.

The insurer said today farm machinery thefts rose by 15% last year as criminals target valuable tractors which are then exported to the continent.

Norfolk-based Farmwatch, which liaises between farmers and the police, have reported that the problem of livestock theft has begun to re-emerge, having previously vanished as animal prices plummeted.

Speaking in Norfolk newspaper EDP, Tim Price, spokesman for NFU Mutual, said: ?Last year it was heating oil, the year before it was scrap metal. This year rural thieves are turning their attention to livestock.?

?Over the last six months, we have been hearing a worrying number of reports of stolen sheep, cattle pigs – and even bees from across the country.?

?It seems to be driven very much by market forces. A few years ago you could buy a lamb for a few pence, but now you could pay £50 or £70. The thieves are aware of that and, because animals are often left exposed in isolated locations, it’s relatively easy for them to cash in.?

Mr Bone said that farm machinery, particularly high-spec John Deere tractors, which can be worth more than £100,000 each, is increasingly being targeted. Often machines are broken down for parts or transported whole to Eastern Europe, making the stolen property difficult to track.

Last month, two men were arrested after police swooped on a lorry carrying stolen tractors. Detectives found farm machinery, which was believed to have been stolen from Norfolk and South Lincolnshire, at an Essex truck stop.

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