A GANG of rustlers stole more than 270 sheep in an organised swoop.

Police are hunting the thieves who snatched the sheep - ewes and lambs - worth a total of £17,000 from fields behind a pub.

Farmer William Holden, 50, from Oswaldtwistle, said he had been left devastated by the theft which had put his business at risk.

Experts from the National Farmers' Union said they had never heard of a raid on this scale before.

But the NFU said the value of sheep had risen over the past year due to increased demand from abroad, sparking a surge in thefts.

And they warned the rustlers would find it hard to sell such a large number of the animals due to strict control regulations.

Police said the gang must have a detailed knowledge of farming as well as a large vehicle to transport the animals.

They are urging anyone with information to come forward.

Mr Holden 50, who has been the farmer of the fields behind the Horse and Jockey in Edenfield for 20 years, said: "I'm devastated.

"It beggars belief how on earth anyone could have pulled this off.

"We went up on Thursday after we had sold a pedigree bull in Skipton so we were elated before we saw the padlock had been taken off the entrance and all the pens had been raided.

"It shows that there is no limit to what some criminals can do.

"It happened to me at the same location about 10 years ago, but then it was only six sheep so it was not the same.

"I have to check my insurance to see if everything is covered but I am not sure yet.

"I've lost about 60 per cent of my business and it's a right kick in the teeth."

Police said the animals were tagged, although they could be removed by anyone trained in sheep farming.

The price of a sheep in dead weight per kg rose from £2.70 in 2009 to £4.80 this year and one in three lambs are exported abroad.

A spokesman from the NFU said the two main methods of profiting from stolen sheep were likely to be selling them as either a dead weight or as livestock.

He said: "The reason why this is happening is because the price of sheep on the market has gone up a lot in the last year, which makes them very desirable.

"We have seen the theft of small amounts of sheep increase in the North West over the last two years but nothing on this sort of scale.

"It is very hard to sell stolen sheep in a flock of 271 as live or dead weight because of the strict regulations of traceability, meaning people have to know where their meat is coming from.

"So for people to lift and sell an entire flock of sheep means they are people who know a lot about the market and the police will have a fair amount of work to do to catch them."

The NFU said British abattoirs had strict guidleines on the origin of sheep bought for slaughter, which would make life harder for the gang.

The theft is thought to have taken place sometime between Monday and Thursday.

Police Sergeant Ben Hodgkinson said: "The offenders must have been well prepared and used a large vehicle to commit this offence.

"It is also likely that they knew how to handle the sheep, which would mean they had knowledge of animal husbandry.

"We tend to hear of one or two sheep being stolen from a farm but very, very rarely does a whole flock get stolen.

"At the moment we do not have any positive lines of inquiry so we are relying on the public to assist us and especially if they have been offered sheep or lambs etc."

The sheep were of the Texel breed which is the main variety seen in the UK.

The British Texel Sheep Society said the breed was known for its hardiness and adaptability.

Call police on 0845 1 25 35 45 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 with information.