Fully-grown elk could be roaming the Westcountry after a targeted attack on a rare breed farm in Somerset.
The giant deer – placid creatures which are capable of travelling up to 30 miles a day – went missing from Woodentop farm, near Yeovil, after fences were cut during a night-time operation, the third such incident in a year.
Seven of the creatures, native to North America and Asia, disappeared from premises at West Coker.
Farmer and owner, Paul "Snapper" Richards said animals were either stolen for their valuable meat or freed by activists bent on releasing stocks of deer, bison and wild boar.
Mr Richards, who holds a special licence to keep wild animals, and, ironically is in dispute with council officials over whether people can live at the premises, said seven elk were missing, though one had been found.
"It's either poachers or animal rights activists – they do target people like ourselves to cause that kind of chaos," he added.
"If we hadn't been on the farm the bison would have been through the fence and the boar could have got out – it could have been an absolute catastrophe."
Elk, which can stand 9ft tall with full antlers, are farmed for their very dark and coarsely grained meat, prized by lovers of venison.
The missing females, or hinds, are pedigree breeding stock worth up to £1,000 each.
They went missing on Thursday night.
Police in Avon and Somerset have appealed for anyone who may have been offered elk meat over the past few days to come forward.
PC Jackie Poole said: "This is an unusual theft and would have required a vehicle and probably quite a bit of time to complete.
"I am particularly interested in speaking to anyone who has been approached about elks or elk meat or anyone who saw a vehicle in the area which was capable of stealing these animals.
"It is possible that dogs were used to help herd the animals – if you can help please give me a call."
Mr Richards said the latest incident came after previous attacks which saw an elk butchered and an angry stag launch an attack on thieves' dogs.
"It is going on all the time with our neighbours – it is just a sign of the times and people haven't got money," he added.
"But the elk meat is amazing, really exceptional, so if anyone buys a deer leg and thinks it is the best they have ever tasted it might be ours."
The latest attack has now forced a rethink on what was previously a relaxed attitude to security and will force the closure of a public path and woodland.
"I created a woodland in memory of my father and people can come through the woods and see the animals," Mr Richards explained.
"Sadly we will have to shut the footpath and close the woods off now to step up security and it will be the community that loses out."
"Unfortunately this is just the final straw."