THE HAGUE - Dutch police are hot on the trail of a sheep-rustling ring responsible for the unprecedented theft of hundreds of ovines, with suspicions falling on a mutton Mafia with shepherding experience.
"We are busy with an intensive investigation after hundreds of sheep disappeared in the region in the last few weeks," Marie-Jose Verkade, police spokeswoman for the eastern Gelderland-Zuid region, told AFP.
In the latest incident, 41 ewes vanished last week from a field close to the German border, near the eastern city of Nijmegen.
Nico Verduin of the Dutch national agricultural organization (LTO) said that sheep thefts have risen to alarming levels in the eastern, southern and central Netherlands' farming areas, with over 500 animals going missing since April.
"We have had the theft of sheep before, but never in these numbers,"
"It's not easy to steal hundreds of sheep at a time -- you have to know what you are doing to herd these animals into a truck to take them away."
"That's why we think that organised crime is behind this," he told AFP.
With mutton and lamb prices shooting up 15 percent over the last year, a single sheep now fetches an average 140 euros ($182) Verduin said, as less-and-less meat is being produced by traditional sheep-farming countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
Verduin said his organization believes the animals are either being illegally exported or slaughtered and sold in local butcheries.
In a glimmer of hope, Dutch police on September 29 recovered 309 missing sheep from fields and a barn northwest of Nijmegen, police spokeswoman Verkade said. But no arrests were made.
"We are very worried," said Verduin. "You don't want to know what it feels like to arrive at your fields and all your sheep have gone missing."
Image: Maurice Koop / via Flickr