Sheep rustlers avoid jail term

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Farmer John Kirkham, from Goosnargh, and James Hesketh from Longridge were arrested after the sheep were stolen in a night raid.

Hesketh was found guilty of handling stolen goods after a four-day trial earlier this year, while Kirkham had pleaded guilty to theft at an earlier hearing.

Both appeared before Preston Crown Court for sentencing last Friday.

Kirkham, 66, of Whittingham Lane, Goosnargh, was given a nine month prison sentence suspended for a year after pleading guilty to theft.

22-year-old Hesketh of Wheatsheaf Avenue, Longridge was found guilty of handling stolen goods and was given a 12 month community order and ordered to complete 80 hours unpaid work.

The sheep valued between £10,000 and £15,000 belonged to farmer Robin Dean and had been stolen from a field of Hall Trees Farm, Hough Clough Lane, Chipping in the early hours of February 28, 2011.

Mark Lamberty, prosecuting said: ‘The owner had about 600 sheep on his land and a flock of 63 in a particular field not far from the farm house.

‘55 of the flock of 63 were taken, two were left in the field and the rest were roaming around in the field where the theft was likely to have occurred.

The sheep were transported to a farm in St Michael’s on Wyre, near Garstang, where they were then arranged to be sold by Hesketh for £5,000 to County Durham farmer Mr Robert Muir,

The sheep were recovered from his farm in County Durham five-days later after another farmer became suspicious after reading an article written by sheep dog trainer and columnist Mr Dean in the Farmers Guardian.

The police were contacted and officers then visited Mr Muir’s farm with a specialist forensic unit which used DNA to link them back to sheep on the victim’s farm.

Mr Keith Thomas defending Kirkham said he had been shunned by the farming community as a result of his involvement with the theft and had been left ‘frightened and distraught’ by the proceedings.

He said: “He has been in farming all his life and has now had to move to a new address after being shunned by the farming community.

“It has caused him great personal upset and concern - the farming community is the only community he has ever known.”

He said Kirkham had also re-paid the sale and costs of £5,300 to Mr Muir.

Counsel Mr Bob Alias for Hesketh said Kirkham’s motivation for the theft had not been about money but the result of a grudge against Mr Dean.

Money totalling £4,700 which had been taken from the sale by Hesketh had been used to pay off debts with the remaining £300 given to Kirkham.

He said Hesketh was ‘extremely hard working’ and had too been subject to abuse by other farm workers.

He added: “He intends to stay working as a shepherd and realises he has got to live down with his crime over the years.”

Sentencing the pair Recorder Roderick Carus QC said that in recent times the rural community had become increasingly concerned with the prevalance of stealing in the countryside but sadly in this case it had been members of that very community who had been to blame rather than ‘city folk.’

He said: “It is no surprise to hear that both of you have suffered rebuff and rejections by members of that self same community - you can’t expect anything else.

“Kirkham, you were quite clearly the principle player. You had a real or imagined complaint against Mr Dean and decided to take revenge against him by stealing sheep. It is as simple as that.

“You didn’t need the money in particular, it was therefore a thoroughly malicious enterprise which you conceived of.

“Both of you have suffered in your reputation and social lives and the enjoyment of respect you had in your community. These aspects you will have to live with.”

Det Cons Elaine Smalley, from Ribble Valley CID, said: “This has been a long and complicated investigation which involved two men who were from the farming community.

“Crimes such as this have a hugely damaging impact on rural communities. Not only is there a financial burden for farmers but sheep are their livelihood and a great deal of time and effort goes into farming all year round. To have that snatched away by greed is devastating.

“We do a lot of work with local farmers and we carry out regular operations aimed at raising awareness of the importance of crime prevention – particularly in isolated rural areas.

“We have used specialist forensic evidence to link the sheep back to the victim which is the first time a scientist has carried out DNA testing to prove parentage for a criminal case.”