THEY come in the early morning before first light or at dead of night, armed with trucks and animal transporters.
Their prey: mostly cattle and sheep but also turf — all valuable commodities in these straitened times.
Cattle rustlers make more money than banks these days.
The age-old crime of rustling has made a comeback in this country and there have been several recent reports of heavy losses suffered by farmers.
In November, the village of Roundwood in Co Wicklow saw 15 sheep stolen, while 27 sheep were stolen from a farmer in Dunlavin, also in Wicklow.
Other thefts in the county include 27 lambs from Donard, 25 sheep from a farm near Hollywood, three hoggets from Blessington and two ewes and three lambs from Lacken.
According to Mervyn Sunderland, sheep chairman of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, the thieves seem to be one step ahead of the farmer.
“It’s got to the stage now where farmers are nearly selling sheep because they’re afraid of them being lifted.
“Farmers are saying they don’t know where they will strike next and they could be next,” he said.
In Co Kerry, cattle are the target. Eight cows were stolen recently from a farm at Kilmoyley. The rustlers rounded up the entire herd and picked out the eight best animals before taking them away in a truck. The chairman of Kerry IFA, James McCarthy, described the theft as a heinous act and pointed out that, in days gone by, rustlers were hanged for such crimes.
Livestock rustling and smuggling across the Border is costing the agricultural industry at least €5 million a year.
In May last year, it became clear a gang of cattle thieves was operating in the Border area following two high-profile robberies.
One incident involved the theft of 12 heifers valued at €15,000 from a shed near Ballybay, Co Monaghan. It had been the second major robbery of livestock in the northeast in a month.
Livestock worth an estimated €25,000 were stolen from Ballyhaise Agricultural College, Co Cavan, on April 17.
The cattle in Ballybay were kept in a shed on lands rented by local farmer Brendan Murnaghan who had intended to send the stock to the factory the morning they were stolen.
“I worked hard all winter getting these cattle ready and now there is nothing left to show for it,” Mr Murnaghan said.
In August, a valuable calf was stolen from Virginia Show in Co Cavan. The 10-month-old heifer was valued at over €11,500 but, as its DNA was registered by owner Ivan Robinson from Ballygowan, Co Down, he said it was useless to anyone who took it.
“I had two cows for showing, and I brought the calf as well for a competition for calves, but it went missing from the marquee.
“I have never known an animal to be stolen from a show before and I thought someone was playing a joke on me when I returned to the marquee and saw she was missing,” said Mr Robinson.
A joint police operation involving the gardaí and the PSNI met with some success recently when some of the livestock stolen in Cavan and Monaghan were located near Crossmaglen in south Armagh.
But still the Border raids continue. Cattle rustlers last month stole a whole herd of cows valued at more than €17,400 from a farm at Silverbridge in Co Armagh.
A neighbour noticed the cattle being loaded onto the lorry around 8pm but was not alerted to any suspicious activity as he believed it was the farmer moving the livestock himself. The lorry was seen a short time later heading south.
Also in November, farmers lost some of their best stock after cattle rustling incidents in Kerry and west Limerick. Eight in-calf cows nearing full term were taken from a farm near Kilmoyley in the dead of night. The cows stolen were the best in the herd, evidence that they were carefully selected. Other thefts occurred from farms near Glin and in Adare, Co Limerick.
It is not just the theft of farm animals that is on the rise.
Turf stealing, a crime associated with the Famine, is also becoming more prevalent.
Gardaí believe at least three gangs are actively involved in stealing entire stacks of turf at a time. Last month, a stack with a value of around €600 was stolen outside Killarney and similar thefts have been reported in Waterford, Tipperary, Sligo and Meath. The number of thefts reported so far this year is already double that of 2009.
The thefts reported were of quite large amounts. However, gardaí believe that smaller amounts are also being stolen but the thefts are not reported.
Turf stealing is part of a relatively new phenomenon of “low-value, high-number” crimes that have been sweeping the country.
Gangs carry out multiple small thefts or burglaries, so that if they are caught they will face relatively low-level charges with little likelihood of prison.
Turf and logs, which are also being stolen in bulk, are easy to sell for cash. The thieves sell from vans to residents of housing estates.
Another reason for the targeting of turf is that it has been becoming scarcer since Environment Minister John Gormley implemented an EU directive that stopped cutting in 32 bogs. Most of the bogs that are now conserved are in Offaly, Roscommon, Leitrim and Galway.
The stealing of turf was common in the 19th century, when it was punished by imprisonment and transportation. Court records from the time of the Famine record men being sent to Australia and Tasmania — then called Van Dieman’s Land — for the theft of turf. Records also show the desperate poverty among destitute women who were brought before the courts for stealing turf.
Part of the reason for the increase in low-level thefts like this is that the black market for farm machinery, vehicles and building trade equipment has fallen through as a result of the recession.
Most tractors and farm equipment being stolen are not for resale in the Irish or British markets but are being exported to eastern Europe.
Three gangs from Cavan, Meath and Wexford have switched their attention to lucrative turf hauls after losing income from their defunct cross-border stolen tractor and farm machinery scam.
A Garda source said: “As the demand for tractors has dropped dramatically the gangs have been forced to change tactics. They have been stealing turf from farmyards, fields and bogs. They are desperate for cash, this is just another way to get it.”
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