SEVERAL dozen pregnant sheep have been stolen from farmland in Hapton.

Livestock farmer John Mellin, who keeps sheep on land off Hameldon Road, initially reported that the ewes had been lost.

But he later contacted police to say that a gate had been removed from its hinges, and officers now believe the sheep were stolen.

Four were found on March 1, and three more have been found since, but 43 sheep, who were all in lamb, are still unaccounted for.

The white-faced sheep were taken between February 22 and March 1, but the theft was only reported at the weekend.

Mr Mellin, who is based in Long Preston near Skipton, was unavailable for comment yesterday.

A police spokeswoman said: “The offenders removed a gate from its hinges and took the sheep. We are investigating.

“Anyone with any information can contact police on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.”

The National Farmers' Union has reported a massive increase in the number of incidents – and the number of livestock – being stolen nationally since 2011.

In the north west in 2012, livestock theft cost an estimated £740,000 and is thought to have involved more than 3,000 sheep.

Sheep rustlers have also targeted a Pendle farm in recent months, taking dozens of pregnant ewes.

At the time, police said it could have been the work of criminals from North Yorkshire travelling into East Lancashire towns to steal the animals, before illegally butchering them and selling the meat on.

And last June a pedigree beltex lamb worth up to £2,000 was stolen from a field next to Portfield Bar, in Whalley, prompting East Lancashire’s cattle and sheep farmers to say they were ‘under attack’ from rustlers who were targeting farms in the area on a daily basis.

DI Jill Johnston said: “From a Lancashire-wide perspective there has been an increase in the number of thefts of livestock.

“It is really important that people who live in rural communities are vigilant and take note of any suspicious vehicles in the area.”

DI Johnston also advised farmers to join Lancashire Police’s Farm Watch scheme.