Rustlers take 1400 lambs in massive stock theft

New Zealand has experienced its smallest lamb crop for more than 60 years. Photo by Stephen...
It was the latest in a series of stock thefts from rural properties throughout several districts. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.

A Whanganui farmer has lost 1400 lambs to rustlers in what might be the largest stock heist in the country.

Police say they received a complaint about the theft from an owner of a property near Fordell.

More than 1400 lambs, worth about $120,000, reportedly went missing between October 25 and November 7, this year.

"That could be one of the biggest thefts involving sheep in the country,'' Harry Matthews, president of Whanganui Federated Farmers, said.

It is the latest in a series of stock thefts from rural properties throughout several districts, though most others involved just a handful of stock at a time.

Mr Matthews says whoever's behind the thefts is likely to be highly organised.

"To get away with 1400 lambs like that would have taken two truck and trailer units, a good hour and a half and a lot of noise. They couldn't have done that quietly.''

Mr Matthews says there are some things rural residents can do to help protect their stock and also farm equipment, commonly targetted by rural thieves.

"Neighbourhood watch groups are certainly worth forming and becoming active within. Eyes and ears are our best defence.''

He said many farmers have installed surveillance cameras and are in the habit of noting down makes and registration numbers of suspicious vehicles.

"But you can't guard your land 24 hours a day. It's a hard one to put your finger on.''

Police say investigations are continuing into the theft and no further details were available at this stage.

Meanwhile the owner of the property yesterday told the Chronicle the theft had taken a heavy toll on himself and his family.

He asked not to be named or to reveal the name of his farm, where he has lived all his life.

He said the lambs were owned by someone else and were being grazed on his land. He had since paid the owners out.

Although covered for stock theft, his insurance company has yet to settle and is still processing the claim. Because the losses are unexplained a greater level of inquiry is required, he said.

"It's a grey area because the losses are unexplained.''

Not knowing what had happened was the worst part, he said.

"There were no holes in fences, tyre marks or anything that might be regarded as evidence.''

The disappearance of the stock was discovered during an audit.

"We're not sure if they've been taken in one big hit or several smaller thefts.''

The loss was professionally embarassing and had cast suspicion on himself, which he says is understandable.

Police have had to make enquiries of family, friends and business associates.

"That's put people in the spotlight and has not been pleasant for them or us, but understandable.

"If we had found holes in fences or dodgy comings and goings then that's something we can categorically point to, but there's nothing like that.''

He hired a private investigator but so far has found no clues.

"Fortunately we are in a position of no debt, otherwise it would have ruined us.''

He said planned semi-retirement would now however be delayed.

He says he's been living in a constant state of paranoia since the theft.

He was supposed to be overseas on holiday with other family members but could not leave the farm.

"It totally mentally debilitates you. Constantly making sure that everything's alright.''

"You wonder what it will do to us financially if they come back.''

But he is also philosophical.

He says there is a certain amount of risk grazing stock and if something "bites you in the ass'' that's part of being in business.

He would like to move on but says that is difficult while the theft remains unexplained and the insurance claim unsettled.

"I'm a mentally tough person, most farmers are. But I'm human also - I'm still struggling with it.''

He says he has begun installing camera surveillance on his property.

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