Rustlers slaughter cattle in backstreet 'kill houses'
Gardai and the PSNI are mounting their biggest joint operation since the dark days of the Troubles in a bid to stamp out livestock rustling and illegal abattoirs.
Cattle thieves struck again in Armagh last week. A herd of 22 animals snatched from lands at Cargalougher Road, near Keady, were valued at €30,000. Police believe all the cattle taken were stolen for slaughter at an illicit abattoir.
However, gardai and the PSNI are also monitoring livestock marts in the North and the Republic, in case the stolen animals are presented for sale with bogus ear tags.
It's the fifth cattle snatch along the border in just six months. Gardai yesterday warned border farmers to step up security especially on farms adjacent to main roads.
Policing operations on the northern side of the Border are targeting the illegal movement of livestock which are believed to be centred on backstreet unlicensed abattoirs in Armagh and Tyrone.
Helicopter cover for the PSNI patrols and checkpoints was in place last week in the south Armagh area because of the continuing threat to the security forces from dissident republicans.
Garda sources said yesterday that they don't believe dissident republicans are directly involved in the trade - but say the dissidents are receiving "backhanders" from smugglers in order to keep up their threat to the PSNI in border areas.
This threat means it is still regarded as too risky to mount vehicle checkpoints in south Armagh without helicopter cover overhead to detect potential threats.
The value of the illicit trade in livestock is said to be merely a fraction of the value of illicit tobacco and fuel.
But the potential damage to the Irish meat industry, north and south, is regarded as a far greater threat to both economies. In some areas casual sales of meat from the back of vans is commonplace.
The number of cattle thefts rose from 133 in 2012 to 298 last year in the Republic.
Much of the increase last year was said to be attributed to a major illegal abattoir operation based in the Ravensdale area, south of Newry, but this was detected and closed down by gardai and the PSNI in April. It was run by men with links to the South Armagh IRA.
The reputational damage to Irish meat products caused by the illicit trade was starkly revealed in the horse meat scandal two years ago. Since then both jurisdictions have clamped down on the illicit trade in meat.
But farming sources last week said the illicit meat trade still goes on, despite strict controls on animal movements. They believe that the illegal meat processing is taking place north of the Border.
The livestock rustling is just part of the continuing massive illicit trade based in the Border area, gardai and PSNI sources say. High taxes on tobacco and alcohol drive the smuggling economy along the Border.
Tobacco smuggling is now said to be of greater value than the diesel laundering trade since strict licensing arrangements were put in place over the past year and several of the biggest smugglers have had their licences revoked.
The tobacco trade is flourishing with smugglers working closely with dissident republicans, particularly the groups terming themselves "Continuity" and "Real" IRA.
The dissidents' role is to keep up the threat to security forces north of the Border - which was evidence last week by the helicopters flying overhead as police on the ground mounted checkpoints to deter smugglers.