FARMERS are counting the cost of a rise in livestock theft as valuable animals are stolen from fields and yards around the country.
The Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association (ICSA) estimates that up to 2pc of the national sheep flock -- 50,000 animals -- has been stolen in the last few years.
In some cases, flocks of up to 200 sheep at a time are being rustled and their identity tags cut off before new ones are attached.
These animals are then being sold on for slaughter.
In other instances, small-scale thieves are butchering two or three sheep in a field under cover of darkness, taking the meat home and leaving the carcasses behind.
Organised gangs are also stealing cattle, changing identity tags and taking them across the Border for sale.
Paul Brady, chairman of the ICSA national sheep committee, said there have been large-scale thefts of sheep in counties Roscommon, Wicklow, Donegal and Kerry in recent months.
The largest of these involved a total of 200 sheep stolen from several farms in Roundwood, Co Wicklow.
"These are well-organised people. They seem to be well used to working with sheep because they're able to get them on to a trailer. They're not amateurs," Mr Brady said.
"There is a tagging system in place but it's a very poor tagging system.
"They're cutting the tags out and there's no database for sheep. They're freely able to get new tags," he explained.
He called for the introduction of a pilot scheme whereby a microchip is placed in the sheep's stomach so that, at slaughter, the abattoir can check who is the registered farmer.
Mr Brady also explained the cases of small-scale thefts. He cited a recent example in Ballinagh, Co Cavan, where three lambs were slaughtered in their field and all that was left behind was the hide.
He said those involved must have had butchering skills.