Alarming news from the north. Last week someone broke into a field on the outskirts of Knutsford in Cheshire and stole a hundred mummy and baby sheeps. The farmer’s wife is distraught as one of the stolen animals was a pet. And they took its new lamb as well. It’s all just too heartbreaking for words. And it’s by no means an isolated incident.
Just a few days earlier in Lancashire, a farmer in Ramsbottom — I’m afraid I’m not making that up — woke up one morning to find that someone had half-inched 271 of his flock.
Meanwhile, in Wales 200 were nicked, a similar number went missing in the Borders, and in Cumbria alone 15 farmers have been targeted. It seems, then, that up north, sheep are the new bullion.
It’s not just sheep, though. In Tamworth, Staffordshire, someone has been nicking piglets; in Norfolk Mrs Queen lost £15,000-worth of cows; and in Shropshire some chap rang the police the other day to say someone had stolen 800,000 of his bees. That’s on top of the 500,000 bees that were stolen from Lothian last June. At this rate I may have to think about fitting a burglar alarm to my tortoise.
So what’s going on here, and, more importantly, why has no one yet been caught? I mean, how hard can it be to find someone who has stolen a million bees? Surely he’ll be in a hospital, swollen beyond all recognition and moaning the low moan of deep, relentless agony.
I want to catch him, frankly, because stealing someone’s bees is a bit like stealing someone’s eczema flakes. What exactly are you going to do with them?
Then there is this sheep-rustling business. To steal 271 sheep with no one hearing a thing, you need to have several things: some experience of how sheep behave, a knowledge of the countryside, a fleet of dogs and a big lorry. Now I’m no detective but I reckon that if we examine this evidence, the culprit is almost certainly going to be a shepherd. Interestingly, however, police investigating the crimes are not looking for someone sitting on a fence, in a brand new smock. Instead, they seem to have decided that crime syndicates are at work here. Wow! The Worzels with sawn-offs.
Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Apparently, stolen sheep and underground, unlicensed slaughterhouses aren’t troubled with European Union hygiene regulations. Which means the market could soon be flooded with a surplus of dodgy joints. It sounds to me as though there could be a Mr Big at large in the hills. Pablo Esco-baa, perhaps.
Frankly, though, I can’t imagine the profits are that large. Which is why I find myself wondering why we now have Ronnie and Reggie Gummidge from the Cosy Nostra rushing about in the uplands stealing sheep when they could be doing the traditional gangster thing: robbing banks.
I always wanted to be a bank robber when I grew up. As a career, it seemed ideal: short periods of glamorous and interesting work followed by lengthy spells of relaxation in Spain. All my heroes were bank robbers. Butch and Sundance. Jack Hawkins’s League of Gentlemen. Bonnie and Clyde. Bank robbers were cool.
There was a time when a bank was robbed every other night. We became used to waking up in a morning to the sound of Dixon tearing past our house, in his Austin Westminster, on the trail of some blagger in a stripy jersey and a Jag.
You’d imagine that today bank robbery would be even more popular.
We all know the police are mostly engaged in the lucrative business of apprehending motorists. And the few who are allowed to concentrate on proper crime are either back at the station, filling in forms, or on courses, learning how to climb over a garden wall. The chances of being caught, then, are almost zero.
Obviously, if you wander into your local branch of Barclays and, halfway through the robbery, you succumb to the drugs you’ve taken and fall asleep, then, yes, you’re going to get nicked. But if you really concentrate on planning and get all the details just so, you’ll be fine. The only problem would be the crowds of well-wishers showering you with rose petals as you ran for the getaway car.
And yet despite all this, the last really big bank job on UK soil was in 1994, when raiders made off with £26.5m from the Northern Bank in Belfast. That’s an astonishing 19 years ago. So what’s happened? Why have people stopped stealing wedge, which makes you popular and cool and rich, and started stealing honey bees, which makes you go to hospital?
I wouldn’t mind, but the people behind the Belfast heist have never been caught. And most of the money has never been recovered. One night’s work: £26.5m. And no time in the slammer. That’s got to beat traipsing around the freezing moors at night, whispering orders at Shep in the hope that you can flog a dodgy chop to Mrs Miggins at No 22 for a couple of quid.
It’s odd, but I think I have the answer. If you go to a hilltop farm, you will find a sheep. But if you go to a bank, you can be pretty certain you will not find any cash. Obviously, they’ve given most of it to the Greeks, but what about the rest? I think it’s melted because I haven’t seen or used any for years. So to be a bank robber in the 21st century you don’t need to be able to crack safes; just computer codes. And I’m sorry but fiddling about on HSBC’s hard drive is a miserable pursuit. Certainly, it’s way less cool than nicking the Queen’s cows.
It gets worse. Modern cars are almost impregnable, modern art is worthless, half the world lives with a panic button and a can of Mace under its pillow, CCTV has made all city centres no-go areas and most of the police are tooled up with shooters.
This, then, is why there has been such a spate of animal thefts. Because these days what else is there to nick?