THE theft of six cattle from a South Lakeland farm is a 'disturbing twist' in a rising national trend of livestock rustling, farmers have said.

Tony Hunter, of Moser Hill Farm in Dent, said he was 'absolutely devastated' by the loss of two bulls and four cows in an overnight raid.

The carefully orchestrated break-in was carried out in the early hours of last Wednesday.

Thieves used a stolen trailer to move the cows through an enclosure and three gates into their own vehicle

"From three different sections and over 20 cattle they had selected the six best cattle," Mr Hunter said.

"There was one heavily pregnant cow which we assume has now had its throat cut. It was due to calf in April."

The other cattle included bulls, which would have been sold on by Mr Hunter, and three breeding cows. None of the stock was insured.

"The market value of the cattle is about £6,000, but they were worth a lot more than that to me," he said.

"I have been here 52 years and never had any livestock taken.

"There was nothing I could do. They were in a livestock building you wouldn’t have any reason to lock up. It’s just such a despicable crime."

Mr Hunter believes the thieves were skilled livestock handlers as they selected and moved the cattle in the dark without any escaping and without detection.

"It is an invasion of our privacy," he said. "They must have looked at the place first because they knew exactly which door to use not to be seen from my son’s bedroom window.

"You couldn’t just turn up spontaneously; you wouldn’t know what cattle was in there.

"We will get over it but it will take time. It is almost impossible to make a living from some Dales farms and it just demoralises you."

Derek Lomax, secretary for Kendal and Sedbergh NFU, said he had heard of around a dozen cases of rustling over the last year in the Kendal area alone.

"This sort of theft is going on all the time," he said. "We are telling all farmers to be vigilant and make sure they lock gates. And the police need to look out for trailers being moved around in the middle of the night."

Poultry farmer and NFU county chairman Alan Dickinson said he had not heard of any other cattle rustling cases in the area, but was not surprised.

"The value of cattle is as high as it has been and this is reflected in the prices at the auction mart," he said. "I would think they were stolen for meat as all cattle have passports and corresponding ear tags. Without the passports they can’t be taken to a legitimate abattoir or auction.

"It is very disturbing that cattle has been taken and I feel very sorry for the farmer. When you lose your source of income, it is a very big blow.

"It is always very difficult for farmers; input is very high and margins are fairly slim. At the end of the day it is very difficult to stop a determined thief in a place like a farm."

Former NFU livestock chairman Alistair MacKenzie suggested a possible underground market for stolen cattle should be investigated.

"I have lost sheep and always said it must be people who understand stock and know how to move them," he said. "Obviously they have some sort of understanding of animals, and experience of the slaughter industry. To do what they did without a basic skill would be near impossible.

"It is unbelievable to take that number of cattle. They obviously have a market for it and there are deals being made somewhere. I suggest the authorities need to be looking where that potentially is.

"I would hope this is a one-off but once they have got away with it they will become bolder."

Cumbria’s rural environmental crime officer PC Helen Felton said cattle thefts were extremely rare, but other farm crimes were not - and rustling is on the up nationwide.

"Theft of livestock appears to be increasing and thieves sometimes operate over a period taking small numbers of animals so the thefts go unreported for some time," she said.

"We encourage farmers and residents of rural communities to be vigilant to suspicious activity and report it to us.

"Livestock is a valuable commodity and as such the same level of security and crime prevention needs to be applied to it by owners as any other valuable property."