CENTURIES ago sheep rustlers would have faced the hangman’s noose.

You would need to have been pretty desperate to risk your neck to steal a sheep.

Rustlers are now rarely brought to justice and the ones that are prosecuted are not desperate people who need the meat to feed their family. They are people who don’t give two hoots for their victims or the law.

Rustling has been happening since cavemen first kept goats but it is now the most costly crime for Welsh farmers, second only to agricultural vehicle and machinery theft.

Farmers can spend decades building up bloodlines and investing in their stock, and that can all be snatched away overnight.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could steal 50 or 100 animals without anyone noticing but those numbers disappear, never to be found.

Short of locking the gate at night, there is little that can be done to stop rustlers from taking their pick of a flock or cattle herd.

By their very nature, fields can’t be made into fortresses. Preventing rustling is not as easy as putting a padlock on a building, or fitting a security system to a tractor, you can’t install CCTV high up in the hills.

Livestock rustling can come across as old-fashioned, and even slightly amusing, but the reality is very serious.

If a local shop was burgled to the tune of £20,000, it would be easy to see the impact on a small business, but when we read that sheep or cattle have been rustled, the implications are often not understood.

It is not just about the money, it is an attack on farmers’ hard work, people who have gone to a lot of trouble to develop their bloodlines.

It upsets production because they have to be replaced and, for sheep, wait a year for the lambs. It takes time for a business to get back on its feet.

It is reassuring that police forces now seem to be taking the crime more seriously and criminals are being brought to justice.

But surely the punishments need to be tougher. Farmers can’t combat this crime alone, longer jail sentences would make rustlers think twice about the consequences of their actions.