An Ulster Unionist member of Stormont's Agriculture Committee has warned that organised crime gangs may be involved with the theft of cattle across Northern Ireland.
Robin Swann was speaking after it was revealed to him that over the last three years, there have been almost 9,000 cattle reported as missing or stolen.
The North Antrim MLA said: "Cattle rustling is a serious problem for the agricultural industry costing it millions of pounds and leaving farmers doubting whether their cattle are even secure on their own private land. Indeed the scale and audacity of recent thefts will have surprised even the most hardened observer.
"I recently asked the Minister of Agriculture for more information on the scale of the problem and I was shocked to learn that since 2010 there have been 8,891 cattle reported as missing or stolen. There were 3,070 reports in 2010/11, 2,807 in 2011/12 and 3,014 in 2012/13.
"There are two issues which surprised me with these figures; firstly the scale of the problem varies significantly across different areas with it being particularly acute in the Dungannon and Armagh Divisional Veterinary areas which had 788 and 497 reports respectively last year. This is compared to just 142 for across the Ballymena area.
"The other cause for concern is the relative uniformity of the numbers of cattle stolen on an annual basis. It would appear that rather being simply opportunist thefts, a large number of these cattle are being stolen to order.
"I suspect that criminal gangs are stealing cattle here every year with the intent to either illegally process the meat themselves or dispose of them across the border with fake documentation.
"Whilst Northern Ireland may be aware of the scale of the problem of fuel smuggling and laundering that occurs in certain areas, I am sure that it will come as a surprise to many that so many cattle are disappearing from our farms every year."