(SNN) - Earlier this month, a respected farmer from Dunedin, New Zealand became the latest victim to fall foul of criminals targeting the nation's agricultural industry. Whilst many experts had believed it was something consigned to the history books, sheep farmer rustling (also known as baa jacking) has continued to grow over recent years and promises big rewards for those prepared to take the risk. It's said to be the biggest crimewave to hit the farming community since the hen raids of 1986, when an estimated four million eggs were poached by thieves.
The aforementioned farmer, Bill Hambleton, was just 45 years old when he was rounded up and forced into a livestock lorry by an unknown gang. Normally, there is little prospect of recovery, which leaves families facing an uncertain future. "You just don't expect it to happen to you," Mr Hambleton's wife told Sage News shortly after his disappearance. "He'd got out a couple of times before but we expected him to come back of his own accord. When we heard that attempts had been made on neighbouring farms, we realised what must have happened. It's then that the guilt hits you. Why didn't I have him branded or tagged or at least have our address written on the front of his head with an ultraviolet marker? Instead, all I did was get him neutered."
Politicians say the police's solvency rates in the field are "lamb-entable" but law enforcement officials argue that it has become easier to pilfer sheep farmers following the removal of government red tape. Fred Deacon of the Farming and Rural Trades Society (FARTS) said that some fences were in such a poor state of repair, they were only held together with red tape. Without it, boundaries had collapsed, leaving flocks of farmers vulnerable to rustling.
While some play the blame game, police officers on the ground continue their patient search for the hundreds of missing men reported to them each month. Cal Beecham of the Police Action Team (PAT), a task force specifically created to investigate the thefts, explained that the outcome of their investigations usually fell short of the families' expectations. "We suspect some farmers are being smuggled abroad, while others have their appearance altered through surgery to make them unrecognisable," he told us. "It's a very professional operation and it makes our job almost impossible."
The crooks are also moving into the electronic age and there is a growing trend of selling their ill-gotten spoils on auction websites. Our research team spent literally minutes trawling eBaa in search of Mr Hambleton and soon came across his photograph in a listing offering a box of miscellaneous farmers. On sale for a Buy It Now price of $250 plus postage and packaging, our team completed the purchase online but contacted the seller to arrange collection in person (the delivery charge was extortionate!) Cal Beecham from PAT accompanied the Sage News team as they went to pick up the goods and was optimistic about his chances of apprehending the perpetrators.
Unfortunately, the seller had evidently had a change of heart and failed to turn up at the agreed meeting place outside Dunedin Police Headquarters. However, the merchandise, including Mr Hambleton, was later found abandoned, some two miles from the rendezvous point. Mr Hambleton was no worse the wear for his experience and was anxious to be reunited with his family. We contacted his wife with the good news shortly afterwards but we were too late: she had already bought a replacement farmer from a local rescue centre.
And so with his wife and children preferring the latest addition to the household, a homeless Bill Hambleton has been forced to live at a sanctuary run by FARTS, where he dreams of being adopted some day soon. In the meantime, he has been working closely with police to develop a series of composite pictures of the villains responsible for his incarceration. Sage News can now reveal that the ringleader is believed to be of canine origin, possibly a border collie, with a black coat and white markings. He walks on all fours and answers to the name of Colin. If readers have any information about a dog matching this description, they are asked to telephone the police, who are desperate for some new leads.
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