POLITICIANS have called for urgent action to stop sheep rustling cases in north Antrim, writes Nevin Farrell.
As first revealed in the Ballymoney & Moyle Times, the theft of 214 sheep in the Loughgiel area was believed to be one of the largest ever cases of its kind in Northern Ireland.
But then a second sheep raid - where 143 animals were taken - occurred in Broughshane.
Now politicians want police to clampdown.
DUP MLA Paul Frew, who is Chair of the Stormont Agricultural Committee, says urgent action is needed to stop thieves.
Earlier this year Mr Frew said some farmers were so fed-up with thefts from farms they were mounting their own armed patrols of country roads.
Mr Frew told the Times this week: “Farmers told me they had enough. Some had been broken into up to ten times. They had all the machinery marked and livestock tagged and they have done everything you can ask from them but in rural areas criminals think they can get away with anything.
“This is something I have been complaining about for a long time. The problem is that one crime is marked down as one crime so the theft of 200 sheep or a tractor is treated as one crime like the theft of one lipstick or a Mars Bar from a shop. I want the way crime is recorded changed.
“I’m also asking that police specifically record rural theft instead of just looking at rural crime which covers everything from domestic violence to burglaries in the rural area.
“I want them to have a seperate recording of rural theft of farm machinery and livestock and then when the figures are shown they can devote resources to it.
“When a number of cars were stolen in Belfast, because of media coverage, they set up a taskforce but rural theft has been ongoing for years and now we have had 200 sheep stolen and something needs to be done,” said Mr Frew.
The MLA has asked the public and in particular the farming community to be extra vigilant in the coming days and weeks in order that they can provide any information to the local police to help them catch whoever is responsible and to ensure as much as possible that it does not happen again.
Mr Frew added: “This is becoming increasingly serious and very worrying that criminals can strike and steal large amounts of livestock like this causing much distress and meaning farmers have to lay out thousands of pounds while their considerable costs keep mounting. I would ask the community to support the local police in catching these criminals. This must be organised crime and because of that I have consistently called for a PSNI task force to be set up to deal with rural theft whether it’s livestock or tractors.
“I believe that a team set up centrally could gather and coordinate intelligence better and also liaise with other jurisdictions to help track movements of people , animals and machinery .
“One of the problems I see is that PSNI do not record rural theft in a separate category which means that they cannot measure the extent of the problem ,it also means the theft of a tractor worth thousands of pounds is classed as the same as a theft of a lipstick or mars bar in a town centre where you will always have more crime ,that is not right and I believe it is being used in this way to justify more police personnel being placed in our towns and cities to the detriment of our rural communities.
North Antrim TUV MLA Jim Allister said: “The upsurge in agri crime in North Antrim over recent days, particularly the two large scale sheep rustling incidents, speaks to a gear change by organised crime and a very direct challenge to the PSNI. The success of the police response will impact greatly on public confidence in the PSNI’s ability to quell such lucrative crime. The folly of closing rural police stations will not be lost on many, as patently it hasn’t been on the criminals.
“The sheer audacity of these crimes suggests these gangs are confident they will not be caught. They must be proved wrong and that is the prime challenge now to the PSNI. These gangsters must be brought to book.
“Sometimes it seems to me the focus of the police is misplaced. Recently in the Braid area a farmer succeeded in interrupting thieves in his neighbour’s yard, by discharging his shotgun into the air, yet, he has now had his firearms removed and required to undergo police interview. Society and the police must be demonstrably on the side of the victim and not the law breaker.”
PSNI Chief Inspector Bryan Hume said police from across the district were working to find the missing livestock and to bring those involved in their theft before the courts.
“Local neighbourhood officers in the area are continuing to liaise directly with the rural community to ascertain information which may be useful to the investigation,” he said.
“This type of crime is very unusual for the area, and I would reassure the local rural community that police are working hard to apprehend those involved.
“This is an extremely distressing time for those affected by this crime, especially in the difficult economic environment facing the rural community.
“This crime has a direct impact on the agricultural industry of Northern Ireland.”
Robin Swann, the North Antrim Ulster Unionist Party Assemblyman and member of the Stormont Agriculture Committee has called on the Farming Minister Michelle O’Neill to provide funding and support for farmers to set up ‘flock watches’ to protect sheep in the wake of the recent rustling incidents.
Assemblyman Swann is also North Antrim UUP Chairman and Party Chief Whip as well as a Past President of the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster.
Mr Swann issued his call for the flock watch scheme as he appealed for increased vigilance among farmers.
Mr Swann said: “It’s quite clear that this is an organised gang with an outlet for the sheep. I appeal to everyone in the rural area to be vigilant and report any suspicious activity, including cars acting suspiciously as undoubtedly someone scouted the location of these sheep before the actual theft.
“People should also take note if sheep suddenly appear on farmland where they haven’t been seen before or if there is unusual activity at or near disused barns and sheds.
“I also appeal to the general public to contact police if they are offered lamb or mutton from unusual vendors as there is every likelihood these animals will be slaughtered for meat.
“I urge neighbourhood watch schemes and community groups in rural areas to be on the alert following these thefts and I want the entire constituency to rally round the farming community and the police to ensure these criminals face the justice of the courts.
“In the mean time, I call on the Farming Minister to set aside emergency DARD funding to help farmers set up flock watch schemes and stamp out sheep rustling before it becomes a new crime epidemic in Northern Ireland,” said Assemblyman Swann.
The farmer who lost 214 sheep in the Loughgiel area says they were worth £25,000.
Ken Lamont was heartbroken to discover a flock of 214 animals had been stolen.
Many of the animals were due to be slaughtered this week and Mr Lamont said the future of his farm was heavily dependent on the income from their sale.
Mr Lamont said that while they were insured, he may not be able to sustain his farm until compensation is paid out
“We went up to feed them and they were all gone,” the 62-year-old farmer said.
“I have farmed my whole life and we have been using the ground where it happened -about four miles from my house at the Knockahollet Road -- for about 10 years.
“At the minute I’m out £25,000 and the insurance has to assess it so I don’t know when it will be sorted. It has left me crippled, to tell you the truth.”
It is understood that a number of large vehicles would have been used by the culprits to pull off the massive operation.
Mr Lamont said police told him they believed the animals had been stolen to order.
SDLP councillor Harry Connolly said news of the theft was worrying local farmers. “I totally condemn it and feel sorry for the farmer affected,” he added.
In another development, police in Coleraine are investigating eight reports of thefts from fields in the Aghadowey and Garvagh areas in the past few days.
Some time between the evening of Wednesday 25 July and the evening of Thursday 26 July thieves stole approximately nine large metal gates from farming fields. The gates are heavy and would have needed at least two people to lift them.
Police are appealing for information about crime on 08456008000 or phone the Crimestoppers number 0800555111.