A CROSS-BORDER rustling gang, who pay "protection" money to paramilitaries, is believed to have been behind the theft of 75 cattle and 25 sheep from a midlands farm.
Niall Dillon (34) discovered the theft from his farm at Cornaher, Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath last Thursday morning when he noticed padlocks on gates had been cut. He estimates the value of the livestock to be €100,000 and described the loss as a "major blow" to his family's livelihood.
Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney has described the massive theft as "outrageous".
The theft brings the total number of livestock stolen on this side of the Border to 950 animals over the past five years.
Senior Gardai are satisfied the Kilbeggan incident is the work of a well organised gang responsible for a spate of rustling crimes in the Border region.
Gardai are now co-operating closely with the PSNI to combat the thieves, who are understood to be handing over a slice of their profits to paramilitary figures controlling crime along the Border.
The agriculture departments, North and South, are also co-ordinating their efforts to curb the rustling.
Gardai said this was an unusually high number of animals to be taken in a single raid.
They appealed for anyone who may have noticed any transport activity in the area to contact them.
Mr Coveney said they been working to counteract the theft of livestock over the last few decades.
"That was a particularly bad case and it is just outrageous that could happen.
"We are obviously working with the gardai to try and make sure we find out where those animals have gone and pursue a conviction," said Mr Coveney.
"We can't have a situation where people who are farming in isolated areas are having livestock stolen and have to worry about security as well as all the other things they have to worry about in farming life. It is something that I'm very annoyed about."
Mr Dillon, who farms and also works as a cattle transporter, said the thieves must have been watching his premises as they were well-organised to be able to remove such a large number of animals.
"I was left with just four cattle in the fields that were raided," said Mr Dillon.
He said two lorries, including one with a double-decker trailer, were spotted on CCTV in the area and footage was being examined in other areas.
Mr Dillon said the animals included 15 Charolais crosses, 12 Hereford crosses, nine cows and calves, and Limousin crosses. "We're doing everything we can using all the systems that the Department has in terms of animal identification to work with gardai to try and make an example of what happened there, and to get a conviction," said Mr Coveney.
The farmland is close to the N6 old Dublin Road between Kilbeggan and Tyrrellspass. It is believed the 100 animals were stolen between 9pm on Wednesday and 1.15pm on Thursday.
Figures from the Department of Agriculture recently showed that 59 cattle were reported missing from farms between January and June 9, with 146 stolen during all of 2014.
The IFA has offered a €10,000 reward for anyone with significant information to contact gardai, at either at Athlone station, tel 09064 98550, any garda station or the confidential Crimestoppers 1850 250025.