AN outbreak of suspected sheep rustling in the hills of Teesdale and Cumbria has sent shockwaves through the upland farming community.

Dozens of farmers descended on Kirkby Stephen Auction Mart as police sought to reunite some of the Swaledales they have recovered during an ongoing investigation into the theft of sheep with their rightful owners.

Six people have been arrested and are currently on bail as the probe continues, and 150 ewes have been recovered.

While many have been returned to their owners, Durham Police organised a viewing day for farmers at the auction mart in a bid to identify 37 sheep.

Horns had either been filed or sawn off to remove identification marks and in many cases, ear tags had been removed.

Upper Teesdale farmers Tom and Kay Hutchinson were among those casting an eye over the pens.

Mr Hutchinson said: “We breed Swalesdales and then sell a few into different areas. We came because there may be sheep we have owned and then sold, so we thought we may be able to spot them.”

He added: “This is not the sort of thing you expect to happen in the farming community.

“The Swaledale has connections the length and breadth of the country and farmers the length and breadth of the country will be talking about this.

“You expect to lose one or two sheep, but you don't expect other people to be taking them – there has to be trust between neighbours on the fells.”

Raymond Ridley, of Kexwith farm, near Richmond, said he was alerted to the possible theft of sheep when he spotted six without tags and damaged horns among his own flock.

“We got in touch with all the neighbours and they obviously weren't their sheep.

“Word got round about sheep disappearing and two families came over and recognised four of them as they still had their ear tags.”

Mr Ridley said described the theft of sheep as “just unbelievable.”

He added: “You can't understand how those responsible can do it. They are going to be outcasts.”

PC Harry Marsh, of Barnard Castle Police, said although only two of the sheep on view had been identified, the response from farmers has been excellent.

He said it was also a chance to update farmers about progress with the investigation.

“It is still very much a live investigation,” he added. "We had the opportunity to speak to farmers and demonstrate in a very visible way our commitment to this investigation and the theft of sheep in general."