A total of 32 sheep – some bought in from the mainland – have gone missing on Ruth MacDonald, Laxay, in the Lochs area and despite widespread searches and appeals there has been no sign. A total of 18 of them were in-lamb and due to give birth now.
While it’s far from unusual for sheep to go missing on the moor, what makes this case stand out is the high number involved at the one time; they had all been recovered in previous gathers, meaning they had been accustomed to the terrain and where to go – and they all belonged to the one owner.
After working as a shepherd and on dairy farms on the mainland, Ruth decided to set up a pedigree flock of Texel sheep alongside commercial ewes 10 years ago with her husband in Laxay.
Last year she purchased 23 young “mules” – a composite sheep breed used for producing fat lambs – which she says “was a big investment”.
They were sent to the moor along with the other sheep last year and “came back no problem after every gather”.
However, when she went to bring them back home for lambing they had disappeared.
"After the scanning in February this year I put all the in-lamb and dry ewes and gimmers out to the moor for six weeks”, said Ruth.
“On the 2nd April we gathered the moor and I was missing 17 of my mules that I bought in, along with two blackface gimmers, two texels and some of my homebred gimmers.
"The neighbouring villages have gathered their moors and no sign of my sheep. My husband and I have both been out on various days since the gather and still not found the missing sheep.
"I am not the only person that has had sheep mysteriously disappear from moors. A few people from different villages contacted me when I put out the appeal for the missing sheep.”
Ruth did contact the police in Stornoway, but they decided not to pursue the matter.
"I personally think they have been rounded up and taken as 32 sheep don’t just disappear,” she said. “I told that to the police but they didn’t seem interested.”
The missing sheep will have green spray over the shoulders and a “raddle” mark on the backend, with “Macdonald, 6 Laxay” printed on their identity ear-tags.
Sheep theft has become more and more common in recent years – though the logistics involved in the islands would be more challenging if they are destined for the black market on the mainland.
Rural insurer NFU Mutual said that cases of sheep rustling rose by almost 15 per cent year-on-year at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. It said there was a spike in reports of livestock, mainly sheep and lambs, being stolen in April.
The insurer said the cost of rural crime in Scotland had risen by 44% to £2.3 million the previous year, with gangs targeting expensive tractors and quad bikes as well as livestock.
The company’s annual report said the cost of rural crime across the UK rose almost 9% in 12 months to £54 million.