Criminal gangs are now targeting isolated rural areas in Munster and Connacht in order to avoid Garda detection along motorways a rural crime expert has warned.
It is understood the success of Operation Thor and it's crackdown on crime in the midlands region is driving gangs onto less policed regional and back roads.
Experts say the criminals, mainly city-based, are now regularly staying in remote parts of Kerry, Cork, Clare, Mayo, Galway and Donegal for a couple of days before carrying out attacks on specific 'soft' targets.
"Kerry, Cork, Clare, Mayo, Donegal: those areas are being targeted without a doubt because they are now being seen as soft targets," says Colin Connolly, former Rural Crime Prevention Executive at the IFA.
"These counties would once have been seen as too geographically isolated for criminals - they wouldn't have been bothered travelling to them because it would have been too far.
"But now criminals are travelling down, they are spending a couple of days in these areas and they are going down and clearing out the place and going back again," he told the Farming Independent.
He said the roaming raiders are opting for back roads because they have "copped on" that their chances of meeting gardaí is much less likely than on busy motorways.
"That is just the way policing has gone. I think a lot of Garda policing operations are focused on road traffic so therefore they are going to be on busier roads where there is more people and it looks like they are having more of a visible presence.
"But as far as rural back roads, the guards are not on them - the guards are just not there," he said.
Mr Connolly, who stepped down from his IFA position last December acknowledges that the Gardaí's multi-agency Operation Thor has led to a substantial drop in property crime and significant arrests. He claims the perception and fear of crime in rural areas has not altered as dramatically.
"If there is a huge effort in an area, then obviously it will have an effect but once that moves on the area is open for exposure again," he says.
As an example, he cites the recent guilty pleas of three Laois brothers accused of possession of stolen farm machinery which was hailed as "significant breakthrough" in the fight against rural crime in the midland region.
"I know extensive resources were put in to catching those guys - surveillance, Garda response units, phones tapped, everything to ensure they were caught but that level of investigation is not feasible across the country," he said.
"I don't believe our policing is working across the country, not at all: not when you talk to people in rural communities.They are terrified," he said.
"I've no doubt the Gardaí want to be there but they just don't have the resources," he added.
Before leaving the IFA, Mr Connolly, who headed up the TheftStop scheme - a joint initiative by the IFA and the Gardaí - to tackle farm theft, also noticed a sharp rise in livestock thefts in Roscommon and Leitrim.
Paddy Byrne, Muintir na Tíre board member and former president, has also noticed a shift in criminal activity away from dual carriageways.
"There definitely appears to be a shift in location in terms of the areas the gangs are pinpointing. Here in Wexford we had no report of break-ins for a long time but in the last couple of weeks we had three or four house break-ins in the Gorey- Carnew direction," he said.
"It's probably in response to the Operation Thor, which is more geared towards the motor- ways, and we'd be concerned that there is a shift away to the more isolated areas that are remote from gardaí."
He is encouraging people in all areas to become members of community text and alert groups.
A recent ICSA and Waterford Institute of Technology rural crime survey indicates that two thirds of Irish farming families have been affected by crime relating to their enterprise.
However, crime levels differ substantially when it comes to the main categories surveyed: vandalism/criminal damage/trespass (VCDT), theft, criminal assault, and fraud.
The survey was completed by 861 full- and part-time farmers working between January 2014 and May 2016.
Of these, 39pc said they had experienced VCDT, while 62pc said they did not.
Trespassing for unauthorised hunting/fishing/shooting was the most prevalent recording.
A total of 41pc said they had experienced theft - 46pc recording "repeat incidents". Machinery, equipment and vehicle-related thefts were the most common. Almost 20pc included livestock/feed/product- related theft.
Just 6pc of respondents (43 people) replied "yes" to criminal assault.
A total of 94pc recorded no experience of fraud.
ICSA president Patrick Kent said, "The results reveal that the issue of agricultural crime is a far bigger issue than official Garda statistics suggest.
"The rural community believes that the judicial system provides virtually no deterrent to this type of crime."
John Jacobs, deputy general-secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI), was unable confirm reports that criminal gangs are now targeting more isolated communities away from commuter towns and areas.
When asked about the lack of a Garda presence in many rural areas, he pointed to extensive periods needed for gardaí to complete their training.
"We don't have sufficient numbers to provide the service that the people in rural areas want and deserve but, over time, with Government commitment, that will come -but it won't be in the immediate short term.
"It takes so long for gardaí to go through the process so it's going to be a number of years before we see more of a Garda presence on the streets than currently," he concluded.
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