Rural Ireland is in the grip of a crime epidemic, with hard-pressed farmers being forced to turn their homes and premises into fortresses.
The problem has become so acute over the past two years that travelling gangs of thieves are undermining the peace of rustic life and creating an atmosphere of fear and apprehension.
Many country communities say they have lost faith in the ability of the gardaí to either protect them or catch the culprits, who seem to be able to operate with impunity.
Farming representatives and community-based rural-alert groups claim that whole swathes of the countryside no longer have a garda presence as a result of the cutbacks and station closures of recent years.
People talk of an overwhelming sense of frustration, helplessness and fear. These cannot be explained in terms of the Government's and garda management's default line that such fears are being whipped up by "media spin and exaggeration".
Farmers have revealed that even their dogs are being poisoned by the gangs and say that the only way of protecting their families and property and those of their neighbours is with their licensed shotguns.
These are some of the startling findings of an ongoing special Irish Independent investigation into the true extent of crime in rural Ireland.
Last month, we revealed how the quiet hamlet of Littleton in Co Tipperary had been turned into a crime black spot over the past two years.
A group of local businessmen, farmers and the parish priest revealed an astonishing epidemic of at least 50 burglaries and thefts which have taken place within a short radius of the village in the past year alone.
Another group of concerned farmers, all of whom live within a one-mile radius of each other in Athnid, near Thurles, have told the Irish Independent of their plight at the hands of the crime gangs. On June 8 and August 13 last, six farmers were raided by thieves, who took large quantities of expensive tools, diesel and other equipment.
On the first occasion, dairy farmer Barry O'Gorman had welding equipment, power tools, saws and diesel worth over €1,000 taken.
The second time the thieves struck, they took a trailer, which was then used to take away a ride-on mower belonging to his neighbour, John Quinn.
"I am still discovering tools that are missing from my work shop three months after the first robbery in June," Mr O'Gorman said. "These robberies have left us all feeling very fearful and it has had a particularly bad effect on my 11-year-old son, who gets scared every time he hears a car slowing down on the road."
John Quinn, a cattle farmer who lives across the road from Mr O'Gorman, admits that he has tried to turn his farm yard into a "fortress".
"In June, the thieves broke into a back garage at my yard and took a chain saw, strimmer, battery pack drills and hand tools, which they then carried across to Barry's yard," he said.
"They took so much stuff that time that they left the spare tyre and carpet from the boot of the car they were using to make room.
"The second time they came (August), they took more tools and a ride-on mower which they loaded on to Barry's trailer."
The thieves emptied drums of oil and lubricant in another shed and opened the tap on a diesel tank - the total cost to Mr Quinn on that occasion was around €5,000.
Michael Hackett's dairy farm is less than a half-mile from the Quinn and O'Gorman properties. In the June robberies, he lost equipment worth €6,000.
"We had been working in the yard bringing in silage until 1am that morning and when we started work again at 6am we discovered the robbery," he said.
"Around here, we all agree that the culprits are members of the Travelling community because they tend to suddenly appear trying to sell stuff a few days before each robbery," Mr Hackett added.
"The gardaí in this area don't have cars or bodies on the ground to do anything about this - that morning it was over three and-a-half hours before a squad car arrived."
Donal Lane was the fourth farmer targeted by the thieves on June 8, but they left emptyhanded after he had turned his farm yard into a virtual fortress following a previous robbery attempt a year earlier.
On that occasion, in June 2013, Mr Lane's two dogs were poisoned a day before an unsuccessful attempt to steal a cattle box trailer.
"Two days before the dogs were poisoned, a Traveller arrived in the yard trying to sell tools - I would not buy stuff like that for fear that it was stolen from another farmer," Mr Lane said. "What stuck out in my mind was that this guy was very cheeky and began pestering me and I told him where to go.
'Two days later, my dogs were poisoned. One died and the other was left very sick and is now deaf. I have no doubt that the boy who came to the house was sussing the place out and saw the dogs. They tried to take the trailer but broke the hitch… the same night they took trailers from two other farms.
"These boys know that they have nothing to fear from the gardaí because they have such large areas to cover and they (the thieves) come to areas like this with a shopping list.
"I decided after that to reinforce my property to stop anyone getting in and it cost me money that I could not afford. When they came back in June of this year, they couldn't get into my workshop."
Another neighbour, Francis Burke - who lives about half-a-mile from Mr O'Gorman and Mr Quinn - was also robbed on August 13 this year. The thieves stole a power washer, a welder and tools worth €3,000.
"That morning I went to check on the cattle around 2.45am and all was fine. When I returned at 6.30am, I realised I had been done," said Mr Burke.
"Like all my neighbours here, it left me very upset because it is highly likely that the thieves were there watching me from the shadows. Something like this completely undermines your sense of security."
Three days later, on June 16, dairy farmer Ailbe Hayden, from Moyne, close to the Tipperary/Kilkenny border, also fell foul of the crime spree. The thieves made off with a quad, a chop saw, tools and farm equipment, which will cost him almost €10,000 to replace.
On the same night, two neighbours were also robbed of tools and farm equipment.
"My elderly parents live beside the farmyard where the stuff was taken while I am nearly a mile away," Mr Hayden explained. "It has had a dreadful effect on them and they have been upset and nervous since."