By Beck Eleven
There exists a romantic notion of the outlaw rustler - a lone man and his dog under a moonlit sky. Sheep rustling sounds like one of the most ancient and quaint of crimes. We even named a beautiful part of our country after one; the Mackenzie Country in South Canterbury takes its name from James Mackenzie, a Scottish shepherd-turned-rustler who, was caught driving 1000 sheep through the basin in 1855.
These days, Kiwis must cop his or her fair share of sheep jokes, but as any farmer who has been robbed of their flock will tell you, it is no laughing matter.
In fact, one Rotorua farmer who had been hit by stock thieves six times in a year said it could result in homicide, knowing his rustlers used firearms which had left his sheep "running around with bullet holes".
It's not just sheep, either. Karen Phillips, a Hawke's Bay sheep and beef farmer, had calves stolen in three separate incidents over a month. They were all taken from a grazing paddock which had homes nearby, including that of her partner's 92-year-old father.
"The audacity of it. The whole security thing, too. People could have been put at risk," she says.
"We worked hard to get those animals to where they were, we'd done everything right, tagged them, everything was kosher. There's a sense of injustice that someone could just take them from you. It's the hassle it causes. And people look at you sideways if too many have disappeared. A mate on a large station reckons he's lost $1 million of stock over 10 years. And they're cunning. They don't want to be caught."
Federated Farmers estimate stock theft could be costing the country up to $120 million a year. More than the financial cost, farmers say the psychological effect is toxic resulting in fear, sleep disturbance and mistrust in their often small communities.
Rural Support Trust North Canterbury co-ordinator Barbara McLeod said "people and trust" were at the heart of the crime.
"If you're losing sheep, you're looking at everyone and that includes your neighbour."
Stock theft, or rustling, in New Zealand largely falls into two categories: Chancers who grab one or more animals from a herd for their freezer, and those who drive a more substantial number from the farm and who may have access to the farm books in a fraud-type operation.
Given our rural landscape, there are plenty of beasts to choose from. According to Statistics New Zealand, the number of dairy cattle last year was nearly 6.6 million and the number of sheep, close to 31 million. A rise in meat prices and a tough economy are often seen as contributing factors in stock theft. The average price of lamb per head this season is $100.
Keeping an eye on New Zealand's "black market meat" is the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). The department's manager of planning and intelligence, Mike Baker, says there are strict rules around the sale of animal products. Animals must be slaughtered humanely and the resulting meat, safe for human consumption. Tip-offs come from the public or industry and MPI's intelligence network. Most recently, it has looked into black market meat operations in the North Island involving illegal sales of goats, chickens and pigs.
While the crime of rustling is classed as general theft, anyone found guilty of selling on the meat black market can be charged under the Animal Products Act, facing up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
In Canterbury, a couple have been charged with the alleged theft of about 1000 sheep from a sheep run near Parnassus in North Canterbury. Police suspect the rustling was carried out at full moon, eliminating the need for lights or heading dogs and allowing the thieves to operate in relative silence.
The couple have been jointly charged with 41 counts counts of theft by a person in a special relationship as the case awaits a date in the Christchurch District Court.
However, few people appear before the courts in relation to stock theft.
Detective Rex Barnett said: "Stealing actual big numbers (of stock) doesn't happen too often so the thefts can be hard to detect. Farmers aren't taking a head count daily, maybe at shearing or tailing so it is very difficult for the farmer to pick up what is missing at the time.
"In hard country they might not see their stock that often so it's hard to tell what's natural attrition, death or losing stock through boundaries, and what is theft. Even experienced farmers try to rationalise it at first, not suspecting someone has just come on their land and taken stock.
"I might take a call if they find a head, skin or entrails. That's when they know for sure."
Bay of Plenty sheep and beef farmer Rick Powdrell has first-hand experience of what the spectre of rustling can do to a family.
In March, 2011 he noticed vehicle tracks into one of his paddocks. A head count revealed two breeding rams were missing from a mob of 30 sheep. Six months later, more tracks were found. This time thieves had driven right into a paddock, mustering a mob of 250 lambing hoggets, he assumes to corner a couple. Foul weather and high winds meant that in the confusion the lambs had become "mis-mothered" and were unprotected. By the time he found them, 40 lambs lay dead.
"That was a pretty expensive night for us," he said.
"By the third occasion I was pretty hosed off. A lot of our paddocks are on road frontage so I'd bought heavy duty chains and padlocks. No vehicle was getting through my gate."
But the thieves climbed the fence and threw two more breeding rams over and down a bank.
By now, he was on high alert. Every time he heard a car stop nearby, he leapt out of bed and jumped into his ute. He wasn't sleeping and his family were concerned for his safety at each false alarm.
Then, 12 months later, on a Saturday night just before the 6pm news, he spotted a car and a man near one of his paddocks.
As he climbed over the fence, he found a sheep hog-tied on the grass. As two men made their way back to the car, it was action stations for Powdrell. He cut the sheep loose, took down the details of the car and hurried home to call police.
As luck would have it, after dialling 111, a patrol car was 8km away from his Te Puke farm. Two brothers were caught, charged and sentenced to 40 hours' community service. They were unable to tie this crime with the other three.
"It has quite an effect on your life. When it happens, it's at night. My sleep was atrocious. My family were worried, because, of course, people like this often have firearms and knives. It cost me in the vicinity of $10,000. And they were locals, so it was disappointing."
Large-scale rustling is often difficult for police to bust open but last month, a man was found guilty of stealing deer, sheep and equipment worth $335,000. Farm manager Dean Thomas Herd, 38, was sentenced to two years and four months in prison after admitting stealing from Criffel Station near Wanaka over a period of seven years.
Wellington lawyer and Criffel Deer Farm co-owner Mike Garnham told reporters at the time Herd could not have acted alone and other parties must have "clammed up" to protect future operations.
Federated Farmers members spoken to by Mainlander said they would like to see punishment for stock theft more aligned with that of the fisheries industry, including fines, jail terms and allowances for the Crown to seize any equipment used in the crime as well (cars, trucks, rifles and the like).
Through the summer months in particular, Federated Farmers warn farmers to stay alert.
Rural security spokesperson Katie Milne said summer made the "perfect rural crime storm" with illicit cannabis growers planting amongst crops, rustlers hitting farms and stealing equipment and fuel as well.
"I have no doubt in some cases the three are interrelated," she said.
"Cannabis growers will focus on back country areas by planting among crops which can mask plantations from all but the air. They'll actively use cultivated land because it provides the best environment for a crop that no farmer wants.
"Rustling is underhanded as a stolen animal may have been specifically bred from a line of genetics making it pretty much irreplaceable. Aside from taking food off any farmers' table, if the animal is part of a farm's capital breeding stock, it becomes a double kick in the guts."
In an effort to provide a clearer picture of the pattern and frequency of livestock thefts, a number of rural agencies including NZX Agri and Crimestoppers imported a British idea to encourage farmers to report all thefts, large and small. The "Stop Stock Theft" campaign launched online midway through last year as an interactive map for farmers to input details of crimes, including any possible vehicle sightings. So far about 30 thefts and two attempted thefts have been plotted on the map.
Rustling is big news in the United Kingdom at the moment with reports the rising cost of lamb has "triggered a rural crime wave" with estimates farmers are losing £6 million-a-year to sheep rustlers.
One report last month said nearly one farm a week is being raided in the valley of Swaledale in North Yorkshire. Another said £120,000 worth of livestock disappeared in 25 separate raids over 10 months.
According to NFU Mutual, which insures three-quarters of Britain's farmers, the cost of thefts of farm animals shot up by 170 per cent between 2010 and 2011.
While New Zealand rural insurers, FMG, did not provide figures specific to rustling, general manager advice and insurance Conrad Wilkshire said policies allowed farmers to protect against specified stock and stock. He said take-up of these policies was "relatively high".
And while back in MacKenzie's day of 1855, rustling remained as simple as a man and his dog, technological advances could both prevent and aid future rustling.
Federated Farmers general manager strategic communications David Broome said on-farm technologies were constantly evolving.
He said two Kiwi companies were working on "drones" which could be activated to fly over herds during prime rustling hours of 10pm to 4am, programmed to pick up biped human movement (as opposed to the movement of four-legged animals), setting off an alert to the farmer. CCTV and DNA testing is already being used on some farms and cited in poaching cases.
However, Broome said technologically astute criminals may be able to fashion false ear tags and create a "phantom flock" on the farm computer allowing for fraud.
At the very least, farmers and police agree, there is no romantic notion to sheep rustling. More....