LIVESTOCK rustling is worse in Cumbria than previously thought, an expert has said.

Amanda Wallbank, who lives in Appleby and is a senior agent at rural insurers NFU Mutual, said: “I visited 10 fell farmers in three weeks and each one reported having 20 to 25 sheep stolen.”

Despite these high numbers, it was suggested by the 2018 National Rural Crime Survey that only 35 per cent of livestock thefts were reported.

Ms Wallbank said: “If the suspected losses were reported then sheep theft figures would increase hugely.

“It is a much bigger problem than people think.”

She added: “It is a pet frustration of mine that thefts are not reported.

“Talking to some farmers - they don’t get round to reporting losses until it’s too late to investigate, while others say the police wouldn’t follow up anyway.

“But I’ve found the police very helpful. The problem is there are not enough resources.”

NFU Mutual advises anyone buying stock to check ear tags and records carefully to avoid buying stolen animals.

The organisation also warns the public that buying meat from unusual sources increases the chance it is rustled.

Ms Wallbank believes Swaledale sheep (most commonly reported taken) which get stolen are “often pedigree” and are taken “to improve flocks in other areas.”

She added: “Rural crime is devastating the farming community both financially and emotionally.

“We have a page on social media sites such as Facebook and we would encourage farmers to use it.”

Wildlife officer PC Samantha O’Kee said: “We believe that a lot of thefts of sheep do go unreported.

“However, tackling rural crime is important to our officers and we would urge farmers or anyone with information on this type of crime to report it to us.”