The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has warned that organised crime gangs are becoming increasingly involved with the theft of cattle across Northern Ireland.
North Antrim Robin Swann MLA was commenting after he secured figures from DAERA which revealed that almost 11,000 cattle have been reported either as lost or stolen over the last three years.
There were 3,217 incidents in 2016; 3,700 in 2017 and 3,838 in 2018.
Locally the figures for the Ballymena Divisional Veterinary Area were 160 incidents in 2016; 235 in 2017 and it continued to rise into 2018 with 271.
Robin Swann said: “Cattle can and do disappear for a host of genuine reasons. They can fall down steep drops when grazing and others can even be swept away in flood waters.
“No one, however, thinks 10,755 cattle have succumbed to such events in the last three years. The reality is that a large number have been stolen.
“After hearing of a growing number of reports of livestock thefts in recent weeks and months I asked DAERA for the number of cattle registered on APHIS that have been reported missing or stolen over the last three years. I was shocked by the response I received.
“According to the DAERA response in 2018 alone 3,838 head of cattle disappeared. In 2011/12 the figure was a full 1,000 fewer at 2,807. Cattle rustling is nothing new to Northern Ireland but the problem is evidently getting worse.
“It angers me when farmers contact my office after they’ve had cattle stolen. Many of those being lifted are quality animals that have been specifically bred and reared on the farm and are worth considerable sums of money, only to end up being stolen by cowardly thieves operating under the cover of darkness.
“Rather than being simple opportunist thefts however, I suspect a large number of these cattle are being stolen to order.
“From discussing the problem with different contacts in the PSNI, I believe many of the people behind the thefts are part of wider criminal gangs. Once the cattle are stolen their tags are usually quickly changed before they are later smuggled with fake documentation into factories in the Irish Republic.
“For those that aren’t sent across the border they are most likely slaughtered in backyard processing facilities.
“With the disarray in our local public finances, the PSNI are also finding it increasingly difficult to do all that they want to. Even the number of officers has long since fallen below what we officially need just to deliver the minimum standard of service.
“That means it’s increasingly difficult for the police to be out on the ground and looking for this type of activity. It’s also why it’s time there was a concentrated effort to identify the factories in the Irish Republic that are accepting these cattle, as well as tracking down and shutting down the illegal back yard operations operating locally. When it comes to food safety these criminals deserve to have the book thrown at them.
“It’s also long past the time that we seriously started to think about a new system that would make it much more difficult to change or swap cattle IDs
“At the minute it’s only a case of removing an ear tag, so perhaps voluntary DNA testing and recording should be made available to whoever wants to. That would allow cattle, as well as meat, always being able to be traced back to its actual point of origin. Samples are already taken with BVD testing so there is already an everyday precedent.
“Until we decide to do something and take meaningful action, the criminals will continue to have the upper hand.”