THERE have been calls for extra vigilance following the rustling of around 300 sheep in two incidents in North Antrim during the past two weeks.
Paul Frew, MLA for North Antrim and Chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development committee, has slammed the people responsible for the thefts and 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 stated: “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.”
Mr Frew said that he believed one of the problems is that the 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,” said Mr Frew. “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.”
Meanwhile, North Antrim MLA Robin Swann has called on the Farming Minister to provide funding and support for farmers to set up ‘flock watches’ to protect sheep in the wake of the recent rustling incidents.
Mr Swann said: “After news a few days ago of the largest case of sheep stealing in Northern Ireland, there is now word of a further theft of 143 sheep from the Knowehead Road area of Broughshane between the 23rd and 25th July.
“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 meantime, 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 Mr Swann.
North Antrim TUV MLA Jim Allister said the upsurge in agri crime in North Antrim over recent days 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,” said Mr Allister.
“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.”
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