It is a full moon and the sheep are restless in the palely lit paddock.
Some distance from the farmhouse a truck pulls up, the motor killed well before it can reach the ears of the house’s inhabitants.
It is a perfect night for rustling.
The thieves don’t have to use artificial light – it will only create shadows and spook the sheep.
Under a full moon the stock will move more freely.
Quickly and stealthily the thieves call up their dogs and round up the sheep, load them on their truck and drive off.
The operation hasn’t taken long, about 20 minutes or so.
The above scenario is typical of what has been happening to local livestock owners for some time.
The latest figures that are available from Victoria Police reveal that there were 250 recorded livestock theft offenses during the 2010-11 financial year, amounting to $1.7 million in losses for farmers.
Commander Rick Nugent of the North-West Metro Region – the former Superintendent of the Livestock and Rural Theft Specialist Unit – said that a statewide intelligence assessment was currently being prepared regarding livestock theft and farm crime.
The assessment is expected to be completed next month and, from that, more recent figures will be available. A common myth is that theft is mostly contained to big cities.
Country communities may pride themselves on the fact that they can leave their keys in the car and their homes unlocked, but the reality is there are people out there who are all too ready to take advantage of trusting country ways.
In response to the large number of farm thefts, and in consultation with the Victorian Farmers Federation, the police have set up the Livestock and Rural Theft Specialist Unit.
Under this unit, some 40 police officers have been especially trained to deal with livestock theft and other farm crimes, such as the theft of machinery and chemicals.
Known as Agriculture Liaison Officers (AgLOs), these police officers have an understanding of farming and rural issues.
A full list of the officers and where they are located can be found on the VFF website.
The two AgLOs in the Bendigo district are Senior Constable Rod Brown and Detective Sergeant Mick Logan.
As part of their investigations into livestock theft, both officers have been visiting the Bendigo Livestock Exchange on a regular basis to follow up on leads.
While not wanting to give away too much information, the officers said they were conducting their inquiries with the help of other people in the livestock industry.
“Information often comes to us and a lot of investigations are still under way,” Senior Constable Brown said.
“We want to make a difference and intend doing just that.”
According to Senior Constable Brown, thieves in the local district have been mainly targeting sheep and lambs.
“The thefts follow commodity trends. You can get up to $250 for a merino ewe, which make them very attractive to steal,” he said.
Since the launch of the rural theft program in April of this year, Commander Nugent said there had been an increase in reports of livestock thefts.
“We understand that prior to our launch thefts were under-reported,” he said.
“We have worked hard to inform the farming community of what we are doing and the need for them to tell police if stock or property is stolen,” he said.
“The more we know about the problem, the better we can task our resources to address it.
“Last July we recovered a tractor that was stolen in the Cohuna area, which was valued at $143,000.
“As the farmer wasn’t insured, he was pretty pleased.”
Bendigo Elders livestock manager Nigel Starick said one of the problems in investigating livestock theft was that the property identiy code tags could be cut out of the stock’s ears and replaced.
“There is a move to bring in electronic ear scanning, but this is still three to four years away from being implemented,” he said.
While thieves commonly steal livestock and machinery, Mr Starick said he had heard of a case where grain was stolen from a portable silo in a paddock.
“It’s hard to credit but that’s what some people will do,” he said.
Police say that farmers are now increasingly reporting rural thefts, and are more likely to report suspicious activities.
As a consequence the numbers of convictions are now increasing.
Stealing livestock comes under the Crimes Act where there is provision for penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
● Leading Senior Constable Rod Brown and Detective Sergeant Mick Logan can be contacted on 5448 1300.
Alternatively, farmers can call Crimestoppers 1800 333 000.
The list of Victoria Police Agriculture Liason Officers can be found at www.vff.org.au