North Antrim MLA Robin Swann has called on the Justice and Farming Ministers “to urgently devise a plan of action in conjunction with the PSNI to combat the increasing scourge of cattle rustling”.
Mr Swann issued his call after it emerged that almost 9,000 cattle had gone missing or were stolen over the past three years.
He warned that organised crime gangs may be involved with the theft of cattle across Northern Ireland.
He added: “Cattle rustling is a serious problem for the agricultural industry not just in the constituency, but right across Ulster, 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 Sinn Fein 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.
“While this compares to just 142 for across the Ballymena area, we should not be complacent about the scale of the problem in parts of the North Antrim region.
“The other cause for concern is the relative uniformity of the numbers of cattle stolen on an annual basis. It would appear that rather than being simply opportunist thefts, a large number of these cattle are being stolen to order.
“I suspect that criminal gangs are stealing cattle in the Province every year with the intent to either illegally process the meat themselves, or dispose of them across the border with fake documentation.
“While 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.
“Interestingly, the figures also reveal that the problem is consistently worse in Divisional Veterinary areas along the border with Enniskillen, Omagh and Newry all having much more reports of missing or stolen cattle compared to Ballymena and Coleraine – the latter area recording 575 cattle stolen or missing in the past three years.
“No doubt cattle are smuggled across the border every year, however, I would be concerned about where they ultimately end up and in what manner they enter the food chain,” said Mr Swann.
The seriousness of the situation has prompted Mr Swann to ask the following question: “To ask the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail how many (i) cattle; and (ii) sheep have been (a) stolen; or (b) reported missing, in each constituency, in each of the last three years.”
Responding, the minister could only provide numbers for stolen cattle over the past three years.
He was told that information on stolen or missing animals is kept on DARD’s database, the Animal and Public Health Information System (APHIS).
Mr Swann was also informed that APHIS does not differentiate between missing or stolen animals. These two categories are recorded collectively and APHIS does not keep information by constituency.
DARD also told Mr Swann that it was currently developing a system for recording stolen or missing sheep.
Mr Swann said the community had a role to play in combating the rustlers by reporting anything suspicious.