TRACTOR thefts have fallen by 50pc as a result of a big garda operation that put an international gang out of business.
The operation, which spanned 11 jurisdictions, led to the recovery of €7m of stolen machinery.
The ringleader of the gang, Cyril McGuinness, is now locked up in Belgium, serving a seven-year sentence for his part in the theft of tractors and trailers units.
McGuinness (45), of Derrylin, Co Fermanagh, was detained by gardai on an European arrest warrant and his extradition to Belgium was then ordered by the High Court. He had been a key target of the garda stolen vehicles unit for the past seven years.
McGuinness is serving his sentence in a maximum security jail.
Four years ago McGuinness was convicted of 44 charges in relation to the illegal dumping of 28,000 tonnes of waste from the Republic in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The court heard that he was involved in one of the North's biggest crime gangs, which had made €2.6m in 20 months from the waste smuggling.
Garda Sgt Finbarr Garland, who heads the unit, disclosed last night that the number of tractors on the stolen list has plummeted to less than 30 so far this year, compared with 70 last year and 140 in 2009.
The figures will be warmly welcomed by farmers as they gather for the annual ploughing championships, which start tomorrow in Athy, Co Kildare.
Co-operation between gardai and the Belgian police resulted in the seizure in the port of Antwerp of seven vehicles that had been stolen here but were about to be shipped out to Africa, while a further four vehicles were found in the English port of Tilbury as they were being readied to be also moved to Africa.
"This was a very well planned and executed operation," Sgt Garland told the Irish Independent.
McGuinness trusted his associate, Damien McPhillips, from Clones, Co Monaghan, with the task of travelling around Europe to locate suitable vehicles.
McPhillips was extradited to Belgium after he was served with an European arrest warrant while on holiday in Spain. He was sentenced to four years' imprisonment along with a British accomplice, Bob Peachey, who was arrested in Germany.
At the end of the trial, the Belgian judge paid tribute to the work carried out by the gardai.
As Operation Segund expanded, it involved several police forces in England and Scotland as well as the PSNI and forces in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Poland, Lithuania, Spain and Serbia.
The €7m haul of stolen plant and machinery included 25 tractors, 16 trailers, JCBs, dumpers and tankers. Gardai last night also paid tribute to the Farming Independent, whose warnings to farmers about the tractor scam attracted a large response and also helped recover some vehicles.