Organised criminal gangs are behind a surge in livestock thefts across Northern Ireland, it has been claimed.
Sheep, cattle and even pig rustling has increased by a third since 2009, with the PSNI now investigating an incident every two days.
In some cases, animals worth thousands of pounds have been stolen by criminals for sale on the black market.
It has led to fears that farms are being deliberately targeted by gangs who are roaming the countryside.
The economic downturn and rising meat prices have also been linked to the upsurge.
Earlier this week a north Antrim farmer said he was facing ruin after thieves rustled 214 of his sheep.
Ken Lamont said the loss of the animals — valued at £25,000 — from a field in the Loughgiel area had “crippled” him.
It is becoming an increasingly common problem for farmers everywhere, according to figures obtained by the Belfast Telegraph after a Freedom of Information request.
Between 2009 and 2011, some 460 incidents of livestock theft were reported to police, with 171 in the last year alone. That is a rise of around a third on the 2009 figure of 131.
The thefts include:
- 2,100 pigs worth £126,000 from premises near Dungannon;
- 129 sheep from a farmer in Coleraine;
- And cattle worth nearly £35,000 from Banbridge.
Harry Sinclair from the Ulster Farmers’ Union claimed criminal gangs targeting rural areas were behind the upsurge.
“The scale of the problem suggests it’s organised crime gangs, not just opportunist thieves,” he said.
“Farms are vulnerable because they are often isolated and livestock in fields are even more vulnerable.”
Yesterday the Belfast Telegraph reported how 214 sheep had been stolen from Mr Lamont’s farm in a daring, highly-organised criminal raid.
Police told him they believed the sheep had been stolen to order.
The 62-year-old said the future of his farm was heavily dependent on the income from selling the animals.
It is not an isolated case, with figures released by the PSNI showing how thieves are targeting livestock across Northern Ireland.
Border areas such as Armagh are particularly vulnerable, as stolen animals can be moved to another jurisdiction, retagged and sold on.
Often the thieves are stealing large numbers of animals.
In the biggest case, 2,100 pigs were stolen from a farm in Dungannon.
Other major thefts included 129 sheep stolen near Coleraine and 58 cattle taken from Banbridge.
In another case, 105 sheep worth about £20,000 were stolen from a farm near Ballygally in Co Antrim. Speaking yesterday, owner Campbell Tweed said the theft had hit his farm hard.
“The farm suffered a very significant loss,” he said. “It was both a direct financial loss and also a problem in terms of the time and hassle in trying to deal with the situation.
“Nothing ever came of it by way of a prosecution, which was very annoying.”
Fermanagh/South Tyrone MLA Tom Elliott, who is a part-time farmer, said the economic downturn may be a factor in the rising number of thefts.
“People are trying to find easy ways of getting money now, and livestock is one way of financial gain,” he said.
Mr Elliott warned that livestock thefts could cost some farmers their livelihoods.
“If a farmer loses £5,000 worth of stock, it leaves a significant hole in their income, and for some people it could make or break them,” he added.
“I know how hard farmers work and it is hugely frustrating to see their produce stolen.”
Earlier this year it was reported that farmers in north Antrim were mounting armed patrols of their properties after a series of livestock thefts.
We need eyes and ears everywhere
By Harry Sinclair
Theft from farms has become a huge problem. It started with small pieces of equipment, then quad bikes, tractors and trailers. Now livestock rustling is a growing menace.
The scale of the problem suggests it is organised crime gangs and not just opportunist thieves who are responsible.
Farms are vulnerable because they are often isolated and livestock in fields is even more vulnerable. We have introduced a number of security offers for our members, such as CCTV, but we need everyone to be eyes and ears for the police.
What we also need is an overall co-ordination — for example a farm theft team could be established within the PSNI to work on breaking up the gangs carrying out these thefts.
It’s a big worry for farmers. Losing livestock can cost a lot of money and years of work put into breeding animals.
Harry Sinclair is president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union