Two men from the Ribble Valley have been jailed for sheep rustling after more than £35,000 of prize ewes were stolen from farms in Skipton and Wrea.
Farm manager Andrew Piner (50) enlisted the help of local “Jack-the-lad” Thomas Redfern (25) to steal the sheep from the barn and field where they were locked overnight.
Judge Simon Newell, sentencing at Preston Crown Court, said the offences struck at the heart of the agricultural community, saying: “Both of you were part and parcel of the close knit and essential trusting community. Much of the way they live depends on trust.”
In September 2013 Redfern, of Gisburn, had been taken on as a stockman by Andrew Hewitson at Newton Hall Farm, who knew he had financial and family difficulties and “a bit of a reputation” in the local area.
The ewes were kept in a field overnight but when 30 crossbred mule ewes were stolen overnight, police were called in to investigate.
The animals were later recovered at Lathams Farm, where Piner, of Gisburn, was working as the farm manager.
Five months later the pair struck again, stealing 58 pedigree Beltex ewes, which were pregnant with lambs, from Curwen Hill Farm, near Wray, Lancaster.
Daniel Towers, the 25-year-old farmer, had been developing his flock and said it was clear the burglars had experience of sheep as they had stolen the best of his stock overnight in the raid in February 2014.
The ewes, valued at £29,000, were stored at a farm property in the Forest of Bowland where Redfern had secured a tenancy.
But when Piner, who has a previous conviction for animal welfare offences, spoke to his landlord, he asked him not to tell anyone they were keeping the pedigree sheep on the land, adding: “They will look after themselves – if they die, they die.”
Officers from Lancashire Constabulary’s Rural Crime Unit launched an investigation and tracked down 41 of Mr Towers’ flock – 14 at Lathams Farm and 27 at Redfern’s address near Whalley.
The animals were identified using DNA testing, but Mr Towers said the ewes had not been looked after properly and had lost their value.
He said: “The sheep have been devalued as a result of this theft and some are no longer pedigree.
“The ewes have not produced the quality of lambs they were expected to and were in poor condition.”
Some of the ewes were lame and others were not able to produce milk for their lambs, the court heard.
Piner pleaded guilty to one count of burglary and another of theft along with a charge of fraud relating to the sale of a car.
Redfern was convicted of burglary and theft.
Judge Simon Newell, sentencing, said: “These offences took place in and about the Forest of Bowland. At the time, you Redfern were living in Gisburn, and you Piner, in Slaidburn.
“It is an area of the country of outstanding natural beauty. It is sparsely populated and almost entirely dependant upon agriculture and to a lesser extent, tourism.
“Agriculture has been there for hundreds of years. It is an essential and historic way of life in the Forest of Bowland.
“It has developed a close knit community, striving in tough conditions of climate, terrain and in more recent years, economy. They have been striving to make a living, sometimes barely existing off the land.
“What is sad about this case is that both of you were part and parcel of the close knit and essential trusting community. Much of the way they live depends on trust.
“These are sentient beings being stolen for profit. It is not a TV or a car - they are part of a breeding program and part of herds which have been developed or are being developed.
“It affects the livelihood and wellbeing and can affect the very existence of the farmers whose livelihood is being stolen.”
The court heard Piner was the older ringleader of the operation but Redfern had allowed himself to be drawn in.
Redfern, a dad-of-one has done charity work enabling people with learning difficulties to have experience of farm animals, the court heard.
Judge Newell jailed Piner for 34 months and Redfern for 21 months.