9,000 Northern Ireland cattle 'missing or stolen'
Up to 9,000 cattle have been reported missing or stolen across Northern Ireland over the last three years, an Ulster Unionist MLA has said.
Robin Swann, a member of Stormont's Agriculture Committee, said he was shocked by figures from the Department of Agriculture.
These show that 8,891 cattle have been reported as missing or stolen since 2010, he said.
Mr Swann said he believed that cattle were being "stolen to order".
"I suspect that criminal gangs are stealing cattle here every year with the intent to either illegally process the meat themselves or dispose of them across the border with fake documentation," he said.
"Whilst Northern Ireland may be aware of the scale of the problem of fuel smuggling and laundering that occurs in certain areas, I am sure that it will come as a surprise to many that so many cattle are disappearing from our farms every year."
Mr Swann said the figures showed that the problem seemed much worse along the border with the Republic of Ireland.
"No doubt cattle are smuggled across the border every year, however I would be concerned about where they ultimately end up and in what manner they enter the food chain," he said.
The figures reveal that there were 3,070 reports of missing and stolen cattle in 2010/11; 2,807 in 2011/12 and 3,014 in 2012/13.
In August, police issued a warning to farmers on both sides of the border after a spate of thefts.
It followed the theft of 14 bullocks worth an estimated £22,000 from a field near Dungannon, County Tyrone.
The Ulster Farmers Union said about 173 cattle had disappeared from the area since January 2012 and sheep had also been taken.
Last week, police visited livestock marts across Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland in an effort to tackle rural crime.
It was a joint operation involving police and representatives from the departments of agriculture in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
PSNI Ch Insp Jane Humphries said: "We are all too well aware that crime is currently a problem for farmers and we are working closely with partner agencies and the community to make it harder for thieves to steal from farms."
Earlier in August, insurance firm NFU Mutual put the estimated cost of rural crime in Northern Ireland in 2012 at £3.4m - a fall of almost 20% on the previous year.