On the trail of thieves who snatched lions from Northern Ireland National Trust HQ at Rowallane
Forget tiger kidnappings - in Co Down police are probing a new crime of lion snatching. They have turned big game hunters to track down two sculptures of wild cats which have been stolen from the National Trust's headquarters in Saintfield, where they had pride of place.
The limestone lions, which are 3ft tall, were wrenched from their plinths on the driveway into Rowallane Garden, where they've been one of the mane attractions for years.
National Trust member Jane Wright, who walks her dogs in the sprawling estate every morning, raised the alarm after she spotted that the statues were missing earlier this week.
"I wondered if they'd been taken away by officials, maybe for repairs," explained Jane. "But when I mentioned their absence to a member of staff I was told the disappearance had nothing to do with the National Trust.
"And it was later confirmed to me that the sculptures had indeed been stolen, and that the police were on the case."
Jane said people who are regular visitors to Rowallane had been appalled by the actions of the cowardly lion snatchers.
And it's clear that the Rowallane ramblers are not going to take the theft lion down, and are spreading the word about the robbery as quickly as pawsible.
Jane said she was disgusted that anyone would want to steal the "beautiful" statues, which she nicknamed Leo One and Leo Two more than 30 years ago.
She added: "It was always comforting to see them on our walks. There was a feeling that they were watching over all the visitors and it beggars belief that someone would remove them."
There's speculation that the lions may have been stolen to order. A trawl through the internet shows there's a roaring trade for similar sculptures, which can fetch up to £3,000 a time. It is emphasised, however, that there is so far no sign of the Rowallane lions being touted for sale online.
One theory that the police are considering is that the thieves may have used an angle-grinder to cut the lions from their plinths, which have been their home for as long as anyone at Rowallane can remember.
National Trust officials aren't certain about the time of the theft, but it's believed the lions may have been stolen between 4pm and 6pm on Monday (Boxing Day).
Ms Wright commented: "This is just such a horrible loss to Rowallane.
"Everyone knew the two lions and they always brought a smile to my face every morning. They were really distinctive and their well-beaten patination only added to their charm.
"So you can imagine my horror when I saw the empty plinths, which are a sad reminder of what we have lost."
She said the robbery must have been well-planned. "The thieves must have taken a fair bit of time to get the sculptures away from their pedestals. I don't know how heavy the lions were but they would have been too heavy for one person to carry," she added.
"I do a bit of weight-lifting myself and I know I couldn't have lifted them."
The National Trust said it was shocked and saddened to discover that the sculptures had been stolen from the 50-acre garden, which was laid out in the mid-1860s by the Rev John Moore, and whose popular features include a walled garden, wildflower meadows, a large collection of rhododendrons and a farmland walk.
A trust representative said it was doing everything it could to help the police in their investigation, adding: "As a conservation charity we look after special places like Rowallane Garden for the enjoyment of everyone, and we hope to see the lions returned as soon as possible so they can be admired by our visitors throughout the year."
Assistant head gardener Malcolm Simms added: "We were very grateful that Jane was able to inform us so quickly that the sculptures weren't there.
"My first thought was to check to see if they had been removed for one reason or another. But we realised that wasn't the case, and that they had in fact been stolen."
Saintfield has regularly been used for filming of the cult HBO series Game Of Thrones.
A number of writers have also said that celebrated Belfast author CS Lewis was an aficionado of Rowallane, and that the installation of the lions at the estate was a nod to Narnia, the fantasy land of his famous books.
In Rowallane yesterday, as the search for the big cat raiders went on, there were rumours that a financial incentive might be offered to encourage one of the thieves to turn informer and name his accomplices to police.
A move that might be branded The Lions, The Snitch And The Reward Route...