U.K. farmers using new technology to stop sheep rustling

Posted Jul 24, 2017 by Karen Graham
Farmers in Cumbria, U.K. are fighting back against thieves who have been stealing their sheep, using cutting-edge technology in a 12-month pilot project in the country's Lake District.
Springtime is lambing time. Sheep farmers in Cumbria UK are taking part in a polot project to protec...
Springtime is lambing time. Sheep farmers in Cumbria UK are taking part in a polot project to protect their sheep from theft.
Gerry Lewis
According to Modern Farmer, livestock rustling is a booming criminal enterprise in the UK, costing farmers over £6 million ($7.8 million U.S.) a year. In the latest figures from NFU Mutual, the country’s leading farm insurer, in 2015, 85,000 animals were stolen from U.K. farms.
The figures don't take into account the animals that are not reported stolen because some farmers fear their premiums may go up. The animals are usually slaughtered by underground butchers in unsanitary settings and then sold to unsuspecting customers. Other times, the stolen sheep are just added to the thief's own flock.
And as the BBC reported in 2016, short of padlocking the gate, there is no good way to stop a sheep thief from fleecing a farmer — and even a padlock isn't a sure way to stop thieves intent on getting what they want.
Tagging a sheep's ear doesn't work anymore because the plastic tags can be snipped off and spraying the animal's back or side with semi-permanent paint isn't a foolproof method.
A mother sheep rests with her baby at Willows Farm
A mother sheep rests with her baby at Willows Farm
A new biological branding technique
The Cumbria Police Department has teamed up with SelectaDNA, a forensic marking company, to help prevent sheep thefts. SelectaDNA's forensic marking system involves using a liquid solution that contains a unique DNA signature.
The DNA signature is a series of combinations of A (Adenine), C (Cytosine), G (Guanine) and T (Thymine). The synthetic DNA used is short-chain, making it far more robust than human DNA, according to the company.
The DNA marking solution is invisible to the naked eye and will last for up to five years. The SelectaDNA's system is used in 37 countries. James Brown, Managing Director of SelectaDNA, said: "Use of SelectaDNA throughout the UK and Europe during the last 12 years has resulted in dramatic reductions in all types of acquisitive crime. However, this is the first time it has been used to combat theft of livestock."
Farmers that have signed up for the pilot project will be given a DNA kit that will allow up to 100 animals to be covertly tagged – a process that will be carried out by farmers and police officers.
Eden PCSO Karen Dakin said, "Notices around the farm will hopefully deter thieves, but where livestock are stolen, the markings will allow us to trace animals back to the farm. We will also be able to do spot checks, including at places like auction marts."
It will be interesting to check back in 12 months to see how the project has worked out. With SelectaDNA's past results on protecting everything from jewelry to farm equipment and tools, it should be a successful pilot project, too.