Organised crime gangs are becoming increasingly involved with the theft of cattle across Northern Ireland, according to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

UUP leader Robin Swann highlighted the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) figures which revealed that almost 11,000 cattle have been reported either as lost or stolen over the last three years.

The party leader said that cattle can go missing for a number of genuine reasons - but stressed that such reasons could not explain the disappearance of 10,755 in just three years.

Swann went further, calling for a "concentrated effort" to be made to identify Irish factories "accepting" such animals.

“The reality is that a large number have been stolen," he said.

According to the DAERA response in 2018 alone 3,838 head of cattle disappeared. In 2011/12 the figure was a full 1,000 fewer at 2,807.

"Cattle rustling is nothing new to Northern Ireland but the problem is evidently getting worse."

The MLA voiced his suspicions that a large number of the animals being stolen are not "simple opportunistic thefts", but rather are being "stolen to order".

“From discussing the problem with different contacts in the PSNI, I believe many of the people behind the thefts are part of wider criminal gangs.

Once the cattle are stolen their tags are usually quickly changed before they are later smuggled with fake documentation into factories in the Irish Republic.

“For those that aren’t sent across the border they are most likely slaughtered in backyard processing facilities," Swann claimed.

"It’s time there was a concentrated effort to identify the factories in the Irish Republic that are accepting these cattle, as well as tracking down and shutting down the illegal back yard operations operating locally.

"When it comes to food safety these criminals deserve to have the book thrown at them."

“It’s also long past the time that we seriously started to think about a new system that would make it much more difficult to change or swap cattle IDs.

At the minute it’s only a case of removing an ear tag, so perhaps voluntary DNA testing and recording should be made available to whoever wants to.

The MLA said that this would allow cattle and meat to be traced back to its point of origin, adding that there is already an "everyday precedent" in current BVD testing.