Almost 15.000 cattle have disappeared from farms across Northern Ireland in the last four years, it has been revealed.
The figures, provided in a Departmental answer to a question from UUP MLA Rosemary Barton, show that an astonishing 14,506 cattle have gone missing since 2016.
Ms Barton said she was "astounded" that so many cattle had disappeared from the Department's official cattle recording system APHIS, with the total cost to the agricultural industry running into millions of pounds.
"The system does not differentiate between the number of cattle recorded as stolen and those that have gone missing from the system," she said.
"Newry, Armagh and Dungannon account for 6,813 of the missing cattle alone.
"While I am certainly aware that a number of cattle are stolen each year, it would appear that many cattle are disappearing from the system, which may suggest they are being sold, moved and slaughtered illegally.
"I intend to establish what follow-up action DAERA takes in relation to these 'disappeared' animals, if they trace any of them and if the PSNI are involved in investigations," she said.
A spokesperson for DAERA said that while 3,500 cattle are notified to DAERA as lost or stolen annually, the numbers need to be put into the context of the total cow population of 1.61 million animals.
"If an animal is lost or stolen, the keeper must send written notification to the department within seven days of becoming aware of the fact, together with written details of what has occurred," the spokesperson said.
"Farmers should report every incident of suspected theft to the PSNI as well as notifying DAERA as soon as they become aware.
"DAERA take all incidents very seriously and investigate each one individually.
"Missing animals and rural crime, in particular the theft of animals, is a direct threat to the livelihood of our farmers and to the integrity of the traceability system which is vital in providing assurance on the safety, integrity and quality of our food.
"The cattle population in Northern Ireland last year was 1.61 million according to DAERA census figures. Stolen cattle will account for a proportion of these figures, there will be some animals which have strayed, some may have died without the keeper being aware and some may be due to administrative inaccuracies where cattle have been incorrectly recorded as moving into and out of herds.
"Where stray cattle reappear or an administrative error is discovered, DAERA can re-establish the presence of the cattle in the herd, provided the correct identity of the cattle can be established."