SHEEP and lambs worth thousands have been stolen from rural farms across North Devon and it is believed they are being sold on for meat.
Police are investigating the crimes which have taken place in Beaworthy, Chulmleigh and Marwood, as well as other locations in Devon.
It is estimated around 300 sheep and lambs worth £31,000 have been stolen in 10 incidents.
The offences have been committed between July 12 2012 and September 8 2013 and have primarily taken place overnight in fields visible from the road.
Police believe the likely motive is for the animals to be sold on for meat.
They say evidence suggests whoever committed the crimes had knowledge of breeding as the majority of animals stolen were ready for slaughter.
Police added there were a number of potential threats created by the sheep thefts, including the risk of handling contaminated meat, particularly if the animals had just been wormed.
There is also a risk that any wool from the sheep could be contaminated.
Police are concerned there could be also harm to the offenders and farmers if firearms were in their possession.
Additionally the lambs and sheep stolen may be subjected to harm if they were killed inhumanely or kept in inadequate conditions.
Inspector Roger Bartlett, the Sector Inspector for a large part of rural North Devon, said: “This is theft on a commercial scale by organised groups and we need the help of our rural communities to help identify the offenders and stop these thefts.
"We are encouraging farmers to ensure they properly mark their stock as well as thinking about making sure any CCTV they have covers the lanes to their fields.
“Farm Watch schemes and the use of the Community Messaging system are effective ways to be kept informed about criminal working in local areas. If anyone interested then I would direct them to ask their PCSO about joining.
“Abattoir staff and butchers have an important part to play in being vigilant and responsible to ensure the animals they receive are not stolen.
"In addition, we are asking local people to be vigilant and to make a note of vehicles operating at night locally that don’t seem quite right and not be afraid to ring 999 if they see anything suspicious.
“It is very likely that someone will know who these offenders are. Their activities are really damaging local hardworking farmers and they need to be stopped so we would ask you to call Crimestoppers where you can provide information about any crime anonymously.”