Turf wars: Gangs forced to resort to Famine crimes
An activity that had been consigned to history is making a comeback in the recession, writes Jim Cusack
Turf stealing, a crime that should have gone out with the Famine and transportation to Van Dieman's Land, is on the rise in the recession.
As winter approaches, gardai believe at least three gangs are actively involved in stealing entire stacks of turf at a time. Two weeks ago, a stack with a probable value of around €600 was stolen outside Killarney and similar thefts have been reported in Waterford, Tipperary and Meath.
The number of thefts reported so far this year is already just under 90, compared with a total of 54 for the whole of 2009.
The thefts reported were of quite large amounts. However, gardai believe that smaller amounts are also being stolen but the thefts are not being reported.
The turf stealing is part of a relatively new phenomenon of "low-value, high-number" crimes that have been sweeping the country. Gangs carry out multiple small thefts or burglaries, so that if they are caught they will face relatively low-level charges with little likelihood of prison.
Turf and logs, which are also being stolen in bulk, are easy to sell for cash. The thieves sell from vans to residents of housing estates.
Another reason for the targeting of turf is that it has been becoming scarcer since Environment Minister John Gormley implemented an EU directive that stopped cutting in 32 bogs. Most of the bogs that are now conserved are in Offaly, Roscommon, Leitrim and Galway.
The stealing of turf was last a common crime in the 19th century, when it was punished by imprisonment and even transportation. Court records from the time of the Famine record men being sent to Australia and Tasmania -- then called Van Dieman's Land -- for the theft of turf.
Records from that time also show the desperate poverty among destitute women who were brought before the courts for the theft of turf.
Part of the reason for the increase in low-level thefts like this is that the black market for farm machinery, vehicles and building trade equipment has fallen through as a result of the recession.
It is believed that most tractors and farm equipment being stolen are not for resale in the Irish or British markets but are being exported to eastern Europe.
There has also been an increase in cattle and sheep rustling, both here and in the UK, in the past three years.
In May of this year, a herd of 40 cattle was stolen from the Teagasc college in Ballyhayes, Co Cavan. And in Britain, police believe organised gangs are stealing livestock to order. In one instance, 271 sheep were rustled in one night from a Lancashire farm.
Theft from farms is generally on the increase and the Irish Farmers' Journal is reporting rises in cases almost on a weekly basis.
Everything that can't be pinned down is being stolen from farms.
Earlier this year, this paper reported that a 10-acre field of grass had been mown, turned and stolen in the south-east.
Livestock rustling and smuggling across the Border is costing the agricultural industry at least €5m a year, industry source have said.