They were not living beasts that the cattle thieves had come to collect that night on the lands of Daniel Wheeler. They slaughtered the sheep on the spot, took the pieces of meat they wanted and left in this New Zealand farm a sad spectacle of blood and guts.
For many, the very expression “cattle theft” evokes nothing but the American Wild West and its outlaws of another time. This scourge, however, is such a reality in New Zealand that the country has finally toughened its legislation after years of lobbying farmers.
The profile of thieves is very diverse, between individuals who remove one or two animals to fill their freezer and organized gangs that carry a whole herd, when they do not turn the field into an open slaughterhouse, describes the group of Federated Farmers from New Zealand.
Daniel Wheeler has been raising sheep for decades in the Ashburton countryside, south of Christchurch. And he did not recover from the spectacle of his slaughtered animals in September 2017.
– “Very traumatic” –
“There were animals that were about to give birth and whose fetuses had been removed and left in the grass … With the entrails of the five sheep they had slaughtered, that's all there was left” , he recalls. “To be honest, I was shocked and furious.”
Mr. Wheeler, who also earns his living through an ultrasound-based pregnancy detection activity, can testify that the flights are “remarkably frequent”: “I visit 200 farms a year and I hear all the time talking.”
Some thieves are well equipped, with night vision goggles, thermographic devices to spot the animals at night, says Miles Anderson, Federated Farmers.
Sometimes, hundreds of animals are carried off and sold to unscrupulous breeders or slaughterhouses. If the logistics are too heavy, we cut and squared on the spot.
“In the morning, the breeder discovers the guts and the skin of the sheep in the pen,” he says. “It's very traumatic for breeders and their families, whether it's these acts of cruelty against their animals or knowing that armed robbers came in the middle of the night.”
“It happens often in very isolated places, and it fuels a feeling of insecurity.”
– 27 million sheep –
Federated Farmers claim that a quarter of their members were victims of livestock theft, for a total annual loss of about 120 million New Zealand dollars (70 million euros).
Agriculture is the primary resource of the country which exported 30 billion NZD of agricultural products in 2018.
With 4.8 million inhabitants, the archipelago is a desert: just 18 inhabitants per km2, against 118 in metropolitan France. But the green New Zealand has no less than 27 million sheep and ten million cattle.
Cows raised for meat can be sold NZD 1,300 (750 euros) and sheep NZD 180. The prices paid on the black market are ignored. But, according to Harry Stanway, a breeder in the Canterbury area on the South Island, they are high enough to encourage theft.
“It's poignant, it's like someone coming to your house and taking everything from you,” he says.
Before the law changed, the police could only prosecute cattle thieves for property infringement, a minor offense. It was only a crime if the beast had been killed.
Those who killed Mr. Wheeler's ewes were never found and, according to him, many ranchers did not even bother to report the robberies to the police.
– “In time, hanging” –
“For the police, it was not a problem because no one complained, and no one complained because the police did nothing,” he says.
Legislative change means that cattle theft is now punishable by up to seven years in prison, and illegal entry into farmland for the purpose of stealing livestock or agricultural machinery is punishable by 10 years.
“This gives the police and the courts the means to punish cattle thieves,” said New Zealand Justice Minister Andrew Little.
Mr. Anderson wants to believe that the problem will now be tackled.
“In time, it was hanging for cattle thieves,” he recalls. “Of course, we do not push in this direction.”
“But as a farmer told me recently: + if someone runs away from a jeweler's shop with $ 70,000 in loot, the police will react quickly,” he said. “And that's the kind of harm we're talking about too.”