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Food prices drive up sheep theft in United Kingdom

The rolling hills of the English Lake District seem the last place on Earth for a crime wave. But farmer, beware: Thieves are stalking the puffy white gold of the British countryside.

world Updated: Jan 19, 2011 00:13 IST

The rolling hills of the English Lake District 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 lake region over the past year, 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? Globalisation. 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% higher than in 2008.

Rising prices have fueled what authorities here describe as a thriving black market for lamb and mutton, with stolen animals butchered in makeshift slaughterhouses.

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 organised 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.

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.

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