SHEEP rustlers have targeted a Pendle farm for the second time in 12 months, snatching dozens of pregnant livestock.

Police believe criminals from North Yorkshire could be travelling into neighbouring East Lancashire towns to steal the animals, before illegally butchering them and selling the meat on.

It comes as the National Farmers' Union announced a massive increase in the number of incidents - and the number of livestock - being stolen nationally since 2011.

Farmer Barry Hodgson, of Pawson Lee Farm in Wycoller, Colne, realised 33 of his flock had been stolen last week.

A total of 15 of his sheep were snatched in January last year.

He said: “It makes you lose faith in the human race when people do things like this. These sheep are mine and my wife’s livelihood.”

Mr Hodgson’s 208 sheep were impregnated on December 20 and, being hardy Swaledale ewes, were left to graze over the winter in a field out of view from the farmhouse.

When the vet arrived to scan the animals to see how many lambs they were carrying, counting the animals as he did, Mr Hodgson realised his flock was dozens short.

Mr Hodgson, 68, said: “I checked all over the moors and spoke to neighbours, but the sheep were gone.

“Last time they pinched them, they stole the gate as well, but this time they must have driven a wagon over the cattle grid and herded them on.

“I felt angry and upset when I knew what had happened.”

The sheep are valued at between £60 and £70 each, meaning a loss of £2,000 to the farm’s income.

A spokesman for NFU Mutual, which insures 70 per cent of British farmers, said: “Sheep rustling has become a massive problem for farmers in the last three years.

“In 2010, we saw between one and five sheep being stolen, in a handful of incidents.

“But we are now seeing organised criminal groups stealing between 50 and 100 or more sheep at any one time, in many more incidents. It’s a very worrying trend.”

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

Sgt Shaun Pearson, of Pendle Police, said: “Theft of livestock does get reported to us quite a lot.

“Officers in North Yorkshire are carrying out an operation investigating illegal slaughter coming through their area.

“This could have been the work of criminals crossing the border to rustle the sheep and then taking them to be illegally butchered.”

Mr Pawson’s sheep were marked with a green line on their wool over the last rib on their right side, and had eartags with the reference UK 18 28 52.

A Lancashire Police spokeswoman said: “We are investigating the theft of sheep at Pawson Lee Farm, which happened sometime between December 20 and Sunday, February 9.

“We expect that the sheep were most likely taken to a slaughterhouse within a few hours of being stolen, but if anyone has any information about the incident, we would urge them to call police on 101.”