Opinion: The courts are not as tough on rustlers as many farmers would like. Now a Bill proposing that livestock theft be considered an aggravating factor when a convicted offender is sentenced has passed its first hurdle.

National MP Ian McKelvie put his Sentencing (Livestock Rustling) Amendment Bill to the House on January 31. It will now go to the Primary Production Select Committee for more debate.

If rustling becomes an aggravating factor in stock theft cases, there will be room for judges to order stiffer penalties. Existing aggravating factors under the Sentencing Act 2002 include actual or threatened use of a weapon, unlawful entry or presence in a dwelling place, and offending while on bail.

Miles Anderson, Federated Farmers.
Miles Anderson, Federated Farmers.

It's a useful deterrent, but Federated Farmers would have preferred it went further. Our 2017 election manifesto called for livestock thieves to be subject to the same powers of seizure that can come into play with poaching of fish, paua and the like — that is vehicles and other equipment used in the commission of the crime may be forfeited.


But Ian McKelvie has at least got the topic in front of politicians, and has taken the pragmatic approach. To go in too fast and hard risked the Bill falling at first reading, and not making it to the select committee for the more in-depth look at the issues that will now take place.

Stock theft is estimated to cost farmers $120 million or more a year. But it's not just the economic effect. "I don't know how many of us in this House know what it's like being woken in the middle of the night by gunshots in close proximity to your house," McKelvie told Parliament.

"That house could be some kilometres from the nearest neighbour. To look out the window only to see vehicle lights appearing over the hill, to go out to find bits of your sheep, deer, steer or pig lying in the paddock with the best cuts gone down the road — that's if you're lucky. If you're not lucky, you could find a truckload have gone.

"One could equally go out to find your dog missing, your horse shot — this happened in my home town recently — animals mauled by rustlers' dogs and fences cut. It's frustrating and at times devastating for families and individuals."

Livestock rustling can start from the odd animal being nicked, which might seem pretty harmless on the face of it, but in effect is no different to someone helping themselves to a portion of an urban worker's pay packet.

Plus it's usually done late at night, and if the thief happens to be interrupted and wants to hide his identity, things can quickly escalate into something much more serious.

At the other end of the scale, rustling can be well organised and involve driving stock from a farm and basically laundering them through a supposedly legitimate business.

In either case, we need greater deterrents. Federated Farmers congratulates Ian McKelvie for getting his Bill to this stage. We'll certainly be putting a forthright submission to the select committee, and I suspect many farmers will be wanting to have their say well.