FED UP: Marg and Stuart McPhee of Swan Creek, Ulmarra, want better support for cattle theft investigations. Photo: Adam Hourigan
FED UP: Marg and Stuart McPhee of Swan Creek, Ulmarra, want better support for cattle theft investigations. Photo: Adam Hourigan

Rustling rampant?

DEPENDING on who you speak to, cattle theft in the Clarence Valley is either running rampant or it is virtually non-existent.

The Examiner spoke to several farmers this week who considered cattle theft to be a significant problem in the area.

David Ryland, who manages Hanging Rock Station at Cangai, said he had been forced to move more than 500 head of cattle to another region because of ongoing stock theft.

Mr Ryland said he was appointed in August to stem the estimated loss of 800 head of cattle in the past four years.

Although Mr Ryland said he knew who was stealing his company's cattle and could prove ownership, he said he had received little support from local police who had told him his case was a civil legal matter.

Fineflower cattle producer and Livestock Health and Pest Authority director Adam Chapman said cattle duffing was alive and well in the Valley - especially on larger-scale properties where there were fewer residents to take note of traffic movements and there were several months between musters.

"There's really a lack of resources for police to investigate cattle theft. I've heard of one farmer losing 30 head at once but very little is done," he said. "If someone went to Grafton and stole $30,000 you'd have detectives working on it day and night."

Swan Creek couple Marg and Stuart McPhee said they had lost 86 cattle in the past 17 years and felt police were not doing enough to prosecute offenders.

"There's no one to help us follow through; we've even found our cattle in someone's yard, but because he just said they wandered in there, he was left alone. There were two good fences between us ... we had to pay him $5 a head to get them back."

An Ulmarra farmer, who asked not to be named, said he didn't believe cattle duffing was as much of a problem on the Lower Clarence as it was in the upper reaches.

A crime once punishable by hanging, cattle duffing presents significant challenges for farmers and police to prove.

Animals can wander between properties through broken fences, can get washed away in flood-water, can cross roads and hills or can simply die and be eaten by wild animals.

When cattle are actually stolen and then located, owners must prove their ownership which, despite a National Livestock Identification Scheme (NLIS), is not thief-proof.

In most cases farmers opt to use NLIS ear tags which can be replaced, while brandings and tattoos can be altered.

The use of stomach tags known as rumen bolus tags are effective for identification but farmers must discount their stock to abattoirs (5-10c per kg) to cover the cost of removing the tags in meat processing, often making the method unviable.

In some cases, said Mr Chapman, major buyers won't even purchase stock with rumen bolus tags.

He said there were two major ways to reduce cattle theft in Australia - better support for meat processors and more police support.

He called on the government to step in and help promote rumen bolus tagging with subsidies and the industry to reduce the fee charged for removing the tags.

Detective Sergeant Grahame Burke from Grafton police said there has been a very low number of reported cattle theft cases in the past decade for the Clarence Valley.

In some reported cases, he said, it was determined that issues centred around ownership disputes between neighbours, family and business associates.

"In some cases neighbours or acquaintances made allegations against each other regarding the ownership of cattle. The issues of fencing and cattle identification procedures were also important factors that needed to be taken into account when dealing with these type of investigations."

Sgt Burke said police encouraged cattle owners to report the theft of stock from rural properties but also commented that there was also an obligation upon owners to conduct a full audit or muster of their properties before concluding the stock had been stolen.

A rural crime investigator has recently been appointed to the Coffs/Clarence Local Area Command to investigate thefts from rural properties. It is understood a rural crime investigator is soon to be appointed to Grafton police.

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