Ulster Unionist Party Leader Robin Swann has warned that cattle smuggling remains prevalent across Northern Ireland.
The North Antrim MLA was speaking after discovering a further 10,000 cattle have been reported stolen or lost over the last three years, with the figures by far the highest in border areas.
Over the last three years 10,018 cattle have been reported as missing across Northern Ireland.
Mr Swann added: “A number of these will be cattle that have genuinely been lost for a whole series of reasons, but the reality is a large number have been stolen.
“I am sick of hearing reports of quality cattle being lifted, often under the cover of darkness, by criminals who deserve to be locked up rather than prowling the countryside thinking they have the right to take whatever they like,” he added.
“Many of the people behind the thefts are part of wider criminal gangs. Once the cattle are stolen their identification is quickly changed before they are later smuggled into factories in the Irish Republic.
“The figures that have recently been uncovered by my office paint a bleak but unsurprising picture. The problem of cattle going missing is particularly rife in the Newry and Armagh areas, with those two border areas alone representing over one in three of every lost or stolen animal.
“Similarly the Dungannon and Omagh DAERA offices have recorded a loss of almost 3,000 cattle between them. It has been known for some time that cattle smuggling has been particularly rife in the Clogher Valley.
“Whether it’s two cattle or 20, these thefts can decimate farm finances.”
Mr Swann said farming is a hard enough living without having to worry about ‘gangsters’ moving around at night scoping out their next target.
He added: “Whilst I know the PSNI have been trying to clamp down on cattle smuggling, the reality is a PSNI officer cannot be on every country road every night.
“The shocking level of convictions for cattle smugglers demonstrates that they continue to act with relative immunity.
“New ideas are needed. We need a concentrated effort to identify the factories in the south that are accepting these cattle, as well as shutting the illegal back yard operations.
“Similarly we need to start thinking about how a new system can be devised to make it more difficult to simply change cattle IDs.
“At the minute it’s only a case of removing an ear tag, so perhaps voluntary DNA testing and recording should be available and encouraged along border areas just so that meat can always be traced back to its actual point of origin.
“At present the criminals have got the upper hand and that needs to change,” Mr Swann added.