When farmer Ed Lovejoy rounded up his sheep last month, he was left “stunned” and feeling “pretty sick”.
A total of 116 ewes had vanished from his flock of 460, with the missing livestock worth some £17,000.
Initially suspecting the animals may have escaped, Mr Lovejoy went searching near his farm in Woodchurch, Kent, but there was no trace of them.
It wasn’t until a witness reported seeing someone on a quad bike pushing the sheep to the side of a field that the reality dawned on the 40-year-old farmer.
Brazen thieves had staged a daring raid to steal the animals, which are now feared to have been slaughtered and sold as meat on the black market.
It comes amid warnings that Britain is a facing a “potential crime crisis” linked to the soaring cost of living.
Electricity thefts, shoplifting, insurance fraud and rural crime are reportedly on the increase amid the spiralling cost of food and energy.
Fraudsters are “weaponising” the situation with a series of scams, a charity says, while organised crime groups are said to be viewing the crisis as “an opportunity” to recruit.
In the countryside, insurance company NFU Mutual has warned of an increase in rustling, with an estimated £2.4m worth of farm animals stolen last year and a further £1.4m taken in the first eight months of 2022.
Mr Lovejoy said the theft of his Romney sheep, a native Kent breed, would have a “knock-on effect” on his business for two to three years.
He suspects the animals were taken to a “dodgy abattoir” or killed and sold as meat by the criminals themselves.
“There is years and years of breeding that goes into these sheep and you care for them all year round,” Mr Lovejoy told Sky News.
“For someone to just take them and steal them, it makes you feel pretty sick.
“I think they would have probably slaughtered them and put them into the food chain somehow.”
Fears livestock thieves can’t be stopped
Mr Lovejoy said he reported the theft of his sheep to police but the culprits have not been found.
He is now concerned the criminals will return again to attempt to steal more of his animals.
“How do you secure 700 acres to stop people getting on it to steal sheep? I’m not sure it’s possible,” he said.
“It is a worry that they’re going to take more.
“If food becomes really expensive then there’s always a black market.
“If the cost of living crisis gets worse, there’s a chance we’re going to see more and more livestock thefts.”
Rise in violent crime predicted
A criminologist says the UK faces a “potential crime crisis” linked to the cost of living – including an increase in violence on the streets.
Dr Robert Hesketh, from Liverpool John Moores University, told Sky News: “As the cost of living crisis starts to peak, I think there will be an increase (in crime) – I think it’s a no-brainer.
“In areas like mine – marginalised areas, areas of social exclusion – it’s going to shoot up, particularly with young people.
“I heard on one occasion the family of a young person being told: ‘Look, we’ll pay your Sky bills, just let your lad do some deliveries for us’.
“You’ll get people within organised crime groups monopolise on this, because they know people are going to need money.
“Already there’s been an increase in electricity theft – it’s up 13% (in 2021-22 on the previous year).
“In communities like mine, it only takes one to get away with it and there’s [people] saying: ‘Get on to this’.”
‘Police are going to have to prioritise’
Dr Hesketh said organised crime groups view the cost of living crisis as “an opportunity to get more manpower, more people involved in street crime and drug dealing, and those in charge keep their hands clean”.
“With the organised crime groups around my area, it’s very territorial,” he added.
“As people get desperate, and organised criminals get more greedy, then they’ll start overtaking other people’s turf…. obviously that becomes violent.
“Violence is part and parcel of organised crime… that’s how they thrive. Without violence, they’re nothing.”
Dr Hesketh said he believed police “are going to have to prioritise”.
“Resources are short as it is, they’re going to focus mainly on more serious violent acts, I think,” he added.
Victims targeted ‘left, right and centre’
Charity Victim Support said it had seen people targeted by scams around the government’s council tax rebate and an increase in people trying to take out “quick loans” through unregulated services.
Lisa Mills, the charity’s senior fraud manager, told Sky News: “People are in this hot state – they’re anxious about the cost of living – so they are taking more risks than they would normally.
“This scenario now is going to be weaponised by the fraudsters. We saw it with the pandemic.
“When people are feeling anxious and uncertain, their ability to rationalise and think about things is going to be compromised.
“What we have seen is people who are desperately in need of money are taking unnecessary risks by taking out loans online.
“We know people are going to be targeted left, right and centre.”
Criminals exploiting cost of living crisis with energy rebate scam emails
Criminals are cashing in on the energy crisis by offering bogus rebates to try and trick victims into handing over bank account details.
Over a fortnight in September, police received nearly 1,600 reports of suspicious emails with links to malicious websites designed to steal personal and financial information.
The scam emails pretend to be from the energy regulator Ofgem and are headed “Claim your bill rebate now”, telling recipients they are due a payment under a government scheme to help people cope with escalating gas and electricity costs.
Detective Chief Inspector Hayley King, of the City of London Police, said: “It is shameful that in a time of financial hardship, criminals are targeting members of the public by claiming they are entitled to receiving rebates and refunds.”
“If an email is genuine, the company will never push you into handing over your details. Always take a moment to consider if the request you have received is genuine.”
Ms Mills warned of a potential rise in “money muling” – when a criminal convinces someone to accept money into their account before the funds are then moved into another account.
“It’s in effect money laundering – it’s washing dirty money,” she said.
“We have seen instances where younger people are being promised free trainers if they accept money to then forward on.
“Your guard is down in this time of crisis and people will just be at the end of their tether thinking ‘I need a quick fix now’, and this is being offered to me and it sounds great.”
Ms Mills warned that some unregulated loans may charge high interest rates or the loan may not even exist.
She said: “As soon as they pay money, a website gets taken down, you’ve lost your money – so the loan didn’t exist in the first place.
“It’s capturing people that way.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) has said forces have considered the impact of the cost of living crisis but denied reports it was preparing for a “tidal wave” of violent crime and public disorder.
An NPCC spokesman said: “Our ongoing priority remains prevention, and we continually work with communities to gather intelligence around crime and disorder.
“As a result, policing is able to regularly intervene early to prevent incidents or their escalation due to this community intelligence to keep the public safe.”