Although the numbers aren’t fully known, thousands of cattle and sheep are being stolen from properties across Australia. 

Story Sue Smethurst  Photo courtesy University of New England

Kevin Butler cried when he realised his sheep had been stolen. It was early January when the Victorian farmer was mustering lambs in preparation for sale, and he noticed something was amiss. One month earlier, his flock spilled from the stockyard into an adjoining paddock, but on this warm summer morning, the yard was barely full. 

“The pang that something was seriously wrong went right through me. I had butterflies and my stomach was churning,” says the Kilmore-based farmer who founded the Blaze Aid charity after the Black Saturday fires.

Over the next few days, the bitter truth began to sink in as Kevin and his wife Rhonda frantically counted and re-counted their flock, cross-checked numbers, double-checked fences and scoured paddocks and scrub for loose lambs, to no avail.

“I was so upset, I cried for days,” Kevin says. “I kept repeating the same thing to Rhonda, ‘But I worked so hard’. I check my sheep twice a day when they are lambing, my lamb losses are almost zero. I move them before storms, I assist lambing if needs be, my fences are sound. I’m trying to put it all behind me and not dwell on it, but it’s incredibly upsetting.” 

Somewhere between mid-December and early January, 381 lambs were stolen from Kevin’s farm, estimated to be worth $45,000. The theft was believed to be the largest ever in Victoria. However, less than a month later, a staggering 700 Merino ewes and white Suffolk Merino lambs, valued at $140,000, were reported stolen from a farm at Logan, in Victoria’s north-west. 

Cattle rustling and sheep duffing, as it’s known, is a problem as old as time, but with livestock prices skyrocketing and Australia’s national herd reaching some of its highest levels since 2014, stock theft is on the rise and farmers are in the crosshairs of serious organised crime.

“We’re not talking about the jolly swagman,” says David Jochinke, vice-president of the National Farmers Federation. “These thieves are sophisticated

This story excerpt is from Issue #148

Outback Magazine: April/May 2023