Some of the most valuable sheep in Fermanagh are to undergo retina scanning in a bid to protect them from rustlers.
The service being offered by the PSNI is one of a raft of initiatives under the pilot Farmwatch scheme launched at Enniskillen Agricultural College on Wednesday night.
While thefts of expensive machinery have been the scourge of farmers for years, it’s only recently that livestock rustling has surged in scale.
According to rural insurer NFU Mutual, Northern Ireland is now the worst-affected UK region, accounting for more than 20% of claims. Rural thefts cost Northern Ireland’s agriculture industry an estimated £3.9m last year.
And police are now teaming up with farmers to fight back against the thieves, with a scheme funded by assets stripped from criminals through the Assets Recovery Agency.
Farmwatch is designed to support farmers and give them better protection against criminal activity, according to Sergeant Scott Fallis of the Fermanagh North Neighbourhood Policing Team.
“Farmers are out in the fields a lot of the day and things in farmyard are left unattended. The problem is also the isolated locations of a lot of farmers with little or no CCTV out in the countryside,” he said.
When thieves come up they usually have a very good cover story, such as that they are looking for work.”
It's often easy for thieves to steal sheep without anyone realising for a few days as they can be grazing on different farms or in remote locations. Even if the animals are recovered, it can be difficult to identify them as the ear tags will usually have been removed, hence the retina scanning.
“If it’s a sheep farmer, we will offer retina scanning, targeting the high value rams and breeding stock, and that information will be stored on a central database. The ear tags could have been taken off but the police will still be able to identify that sheep as belonging to a participating farmer.”
The scheme offers ‘Farmwatch’ signage, property recording for the database, trailer and quad marking and sheep retina scanning.
Police are also providing data tag marking kits for 100 farmers from each of the four Neighbourhood Policing Teams in the county.
NFU Mutual says theft of tractors is a problem in the province, along with quad bike theft and livestock rustling. Last year’s livestock rustling claims doubled from 2010 and Northern Ireland is the UK’s worst-hit region, accounting for more than 20% of claims. Livestock rustling had dropped to historically low levels, while thieves concentrated on easy pickings such as valuable vehicles and machinery. But the resurgence in rustling seems to be linked to high meat prices and improved security on farm vehicles.