By Maurice Fitzmaurice
Crime gangs using farming expertise to pick up best animals in rustling raids
Crime gangs are raking in as much as £25,000 to £30,000 a time stealing beef cattle from Northern Ireland farms, a senior police officer has warned.
And the head of the PSNI’s rural crime unit told the Mirror: “There is undoubtedly an increasing trend in the number of cattle being stolen across Northern Ireland.”
Supt Brian Kee said there are ongoing operations involving the PSNI as well as the gardai and officials from the Departments of Agriculture on both sides of the border to stop the thefts.
But he called on the public to come forward with more information about suspicious activity to help his officers track down the gangs behind the spiralling thefts.
Supt Kee added: “Livestock and cattle in particular are a very valuable commodity. Criminals will pursue money.
“It is very much the case if a criminal steals a car worth £5,000 when they try to move it on they’re maybe getting £500 at most.
“Whereas if they steal a cow, particularly if they are able to swap its ear tags and change its identity, then they’re probably getting the full value of that cow if it’s not believed to be stolen.”
Figures released by the PSNI show that in 2011/2012, 507 cattle were stolen in Northern Ireland, but in 2013/2014 that figure rocketed to 979.
Between April and June this year 77 cattle have been stolen in 19 incidents and Supt Kee said the criminals usually take around half a dozen animals in one raid.
He added the gangs have knowledge of livestock and target a farmer’s most valuable animals.
Supt Kee said he believes the stolen cattle are being brought to both “legal abattoirs with their ear tags switched and into illegal abattoirs, where there’s no need to switch the ear tag”.
If an animal is brought to a legal abattoir with switched tags the thieves will get full value for the beast, compared to the illicit slaughter houses where the money changing hands is unknown.
These operations, like diesel laundering plants, move from one location to another in a moment’s notice and are believed to be located on both sides of the border.
Supt Kee said those involved in the activity “have a knowledge of farming” and “there is some evidence they tend to pick cows that are ready for slaughter”.
The Mirror has revealed how thousands of cattle are going missing in Northern Ireland, with Department of Agriculture figures showing in 2013/2014 around 3,300 went missing. However, Supt Kee stressed their figure for those stolen is 979. It is unclear where the other 2,300 have gone.
Asked about the PSNI’s efforts to clamp down on cattle thefts, he said: “I agree making detections in relation to livestock theft is challenging for us.
“One of the reasons it’s challenging is that very often the theft is only reported to us days, even weeks or months after the theft has occurred.”
He insisted the “police services on both sides of the border take this very seriously, we put a lot of effort and resource into investigating this”.
Asked about who monitors ear tags at Northern Ireland’s livestock marts, a Department of Agriculture spokesman said the “responsibility for checking cattle identities at markets lies with the market operator”.
In a statement the department insisted its Veterinary Service Enforcement Branch “conducts regular, risk-based, targeted unannounced inspections of markets”.
If they find “evidence of non-compliance at a market, VSEB investigates and on occasions prosecutes market oper-ators”. Asked about a PSNI-led raid on a suspected illegal abattoir in Co Armagh in March, the Department spokesman said a “criminal investigation by the Department is ongoing in respect of one individual for a number of alleged animal health and welfare breaches”.