Farm visits, advice stands and vehicle check points were posted across Northern Ireland earlier this week as Operation FarmWatch got underway.

The operation will also include gathering intelligence on 'travelling criminals'.

The issue is a big concern in Northern Ireland; in 2016 rural crime cost the region £2.5 million (€2.8 million).

The annual statistics from the National Farmers' Union (NFU) showed the cost of rural thefts fell 4% nationally in 2016, but have risen sharply by more than 20% in the first half of 2017.

It comes around two weeks after hundreds of sheep were stolen from a farm in Ballyward, Co. Down.

'Reducing opportunities'

Superintendent Brian Kee said: “Police want to work towards reducing opportunities for this type of crime by increasing public awareness, working with other partner agencies to identify ways of preventing crime, and targeting and arresting those committing such offences.

“During the operation, officers from a number of policing districts throughout Northern Ireland visited farm properties, gave advice on protecting property, and worked with our colleagues in DAERA and HMRC, inspecting vehicles and conducting vehicle check points in a number of areas.

Rural and agriculture crime affects more than just those people who are direct victims; it impacts on jobs, the environment and the economy.

'Travelling criminals'

"It is a concern for all of us and I would therefore ask for assistance from the public in providing information that may support us in continuing to prevent crime and arresting those individuals or gangs that carry out offences within rural communities.

“This initiative is important in helping to prevent crime against the rural community and to build even closer relationships between all agencies, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the farming community.

Criminals may see rural areas as easy targets and I want to assure them they are anything but.

"Operations like this enable us to gather intelligence about travelling criminals and ultimately, bring them to justice. We want to send out a very clear message to criminals that we will not tolerate such activity.”