Sheep rustling rampant

Michael McHugh

Reporter:

Michael McHugh

Sheep rustling is rampant throughout Donegal and has been rapidly escalating due to the current economic climate, our proximity to the border and the growing bravado of brazen thieves, the Democrat can reveal.

Sheep rustling is rampant throughout Donegal and has been rapidly escalating due to the current economic climate, our proximity to the border and the growing bravado of brazen thieves, the Democrat can reveal.

The industry is worth €30-40m alone to the region with Donegal accounting for 16% of the national flock last year. And according to the latest agricultural data available, of the 2.2million breeding ewes in the country, the north west and predominately Donegal account for 18% of those ewes - that 396,000 ewes.

“An increasing trend in the theft of sheep has been noticed in Donegal and the North West, especially over the last twelve to eighteen months. Our suckler Chairman had 40 lambs stolen in Cork, but while the numbers are smaller in Donegal, they are happening on a much more frequent basis than elsewhere, according to the evidence available to us,” ICSA Press Officer Patrick Donohoe told the Democrat.

In one case, it was only when gardai contacted a North Donegal sheep farmer about the switching of tags, that he actually released that the sheep had been stolen. The industry is worth millions to the region and is causing huge distress in an industry already under huge pressure.

The proximity to the border is also being factored into the increasing number of thefts and the farm thefts are not exclusive to sheep. Other items including fuel supplies, batteries from tractors, scrap metal, quad bikes, livestock and even tractors are being targeted by unscrupulous thieves.

National President of the Irish Cattle & Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA), Gabriel Gilmartin, who is based in North Sligo, said that there had been three hits alone in the Sligo/south Donegal area over the last year. In one case 39 ewes were taken, 22 were stolen in another heist and a further 15 lambs were stolen in the third of the larger crimes. In the majority of cases, none of the animals were recovered. He also revealed that 188 of his own fleeces were stolen in recent weeks from an outhouse.

“There is no question that this is becoming more organised and increasingly professional. These are organised criminals that are planning these thefts in advance, as you would need at a minimum, a sheepdog, jeep and a 16 foot trailer to deal with the figures we are speaking of here.”

Meanwhile, Fine Gael TD for Donegal North-East, Joe McHugh, has called on his Minister for Agriculture and the Minister for Justice to develop a strategy to combat the rising problem of sheep theft.

“Sheep theft is a major problem for farmers this year and at a time of grave economic difficulty the theft of sheep places severe financial pressure on affected farm families. Ewes with lambs at foot are now worth up to €300 and this strong price during a national recession may be stimulating the criminal activity. In May 2007, lamb was valued at €3.70 per kg d/w. Today it is valued at €5.52 d/w – an increase of 67% increase.

“Thieves are clearly evading the sheep traceability barriers by cutting existing tags from the animals ears and inserting new registrations. The Department of Agriculture should develop a strategy to combat this practice and it should collaborate with the Department of Justice to ensure that thieves face more severe criminal sanctions.

Such is the worry amongst farmers that last week, the Donegal branch of the ICSA met Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, to discuss the growing and worrying trend of farm crime.

Ballintra based John Barron, who is the ICSA Rural Development Chairman, said: “They are taking the whole issue of farm and rural crime incredibly seriously. There has been a notable increase in farm crime in the past year with official figure rising over 5% in 2010 from 2009 and this is a very worrying trend indeed. Farmers and their communities must be vigilant when dealing with this. As with these cases, communities working together can often be the best way to tackle crime.

“The Department of Agriculture should also encourage farmers to carefully brand all sheep in clearly identifiable ways, such as the use of two colours and distinctly shaped flock brands which makes it more difficult for thieves to pass off stolen sheep as their own. Farming communities can combat the problem by exercising greater vigilance over the local movement of stock. Farmers should take note to record the registrations of strange animal transportation vehicles in their area.”