Rustling takes personal toll
There exists a romantic notion of the outlaw rustler – a lone man and his dog under a moonlit sky. Sheep rustling sounds like one of the most ancient and quaint of crimes. We even named a beautiful part of our country after one; the Mackenzie Country in South Canterbury takes its name from James Mackenzie, a Scottish shepherd-turned-rustler who, was caught driving 1000 sheep through the basin in 1855.
These days, Kiwis must cop his or her fair share of sheep jokes, but as any farmer who has been robbed of their flock will tell you, it is no laughing matter.
In fact, one Rotorua farmer who had been hit by stock thieves six times in a year said it could result in homicide, knowing his rustlers used firearms which had left his sheep ‘‘running around with bullet holes’’.
It’s not just sheep, either. Karen Phillips, a Hawke’s Bay sheep and beef farmer, had calves stolen in three separate incidents over a month. They were all taken from a grazing paddock which had homes nearby, including that of her partner’s 92-year-old father.
‘‘The audacity of it. The whole security thing, too. People could have been put at risk,’’ she says.
‘‘We worked hard to get those animals to where they were. We’d done everything right, tagged them, everything was kosher. There’s a sense of injustice that someone could just take them from you. It’s the hassle it causes.
‘‘And people look at you sideways if too many have disappeared. A mate on a large station reckons he’s lost $1 million of stock over 10 years. And they’re cunning. They don’t want to be caught.’’
Federated Farmers estimate stock theft could be costing the country up to $120 million a year. More than the financial cost, farmers say the psychological effect is toxic resulting in fear, sleep disturbance and mistrust in their often small communities.
Rural Support Trust North Canterbury co-ordinator Barbara McLeod said ‘‘people and trust’’ were at the heart of the crime.
‘‘If you’re losing sheep, you’re looking at everyone and that includes your neighbour.’’
Stock theft, or rustling, in New Zealand largely falls into two categories: Chancers who grab one or more animals from a herd for their freezer, and those who drive a more substantial number from the farm and who may have access to the farm books in a fraud-type operation.
Given our rural landscape, there are plenty of beasts to choose from.
According to Statistics New Zealand, the number of dairy cattle last year was nearly 6.6 million and the number of sheep, close to 31 million.
While the crime of rustling is classed as general theft, anyone found guilty of selling on the meat black market can be charged under the Animal Products Act, facing up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
Bay of Plenty sheep and beef farmer Rick Powdrell has firsthand experience of what the spectre of rustling can do to a family. In March, 2011 he noticed vehicle tracks into one of his paddocks. A head count revealed two breeding rams were missing from a mob of 30 sheep.
Six months later, more tracks were found. This time thieves had driven right into a paddock, mustering a mob of 250 lambing hoggets. Foul weather and high winds meant that in the confusion the lambs had become ‘‘mismothered’’ and were unprotected. By the time he found them, 40 lambs lay dead.
‘‘By the third occasion I was pretty hosed off. A lot of our paddocks are on road frontage so I’d bought heavy duty chains and padlocks. No vehicle was getting through my gate.’’
But the thieves climbed the fence and threw two more breeding rams over and down a bank.
Then, 12 months later, he spotted a car and a man near one of his paddocks. He climbed over the fence and found a sheep hogtied on the grass.
As two men made their way back to the car Powdrell cut the sheep loose, took down the car details and hurried home to call police.
As luck would have it, a patrol car was 8km away from his Te Puke farm. Two brothers were caught, charged and sentenced to 40 hours’ community service.
‘‘It has quite an effect on your life. When it happens, it’s at night. My sleep was atrocious. My family were worried, because, of course, people like this often have firearms and knives. It cost me in the vicinity of $10,000. And they were locals, so it was disappointing.’’
HANDS OFF: Taking stock from farms can be costly, both for the owner and the rustlers.