Freeze branding is to be used by farmers in a bid to combat cattle rustling.

The innovative scheme was launched by police in the Clogher Valley, where a number of incidents of cattle thefts have been reported in recent months.

The cattle will be freeze branded with the last three digits from the animal's ear tag ID.

Inspector Keith Jamieson explained: "Rural crimes present a challenge to police, given the isolation of some farms, and the lack of CCTV in the countryside. The beef farming community expressed a very real concern about the theft of cattle in the area.

"On each occasion the thieves are taking between 8 and 12 cattle and are carefully selecting their targets for both remote location and cattle value prior to the crime. Whilst police are working with the community to try and apprehend those responsible, it is important to deter criminals from taking animals in the first place." "Currently all cattle in the UK and the Republic of Ireland are required by law to be ear tagged with a unique reference number which in itself should be sufficient to deter thieves. However, the tags are being removed and replaced with new tags which are being obtained by illegitimate means. Once this has occurred the animal can be moved into another herd or indeed sold - the thief receiving the full value of the animal," explained Inspector Jamieson.

"The branding of cattle has a long history as a means of identifying cattle and preventing theft, and whilst hot-branding has been discontinued, the modern method uses branding irons which are super-cooled which when applied to the animal removes the pigment out of the animal's skin and hair. There has been a significant amount of consultation with the beef producers and the associated industry to ensure that freeze branding would be fit-for purpose as a theft deterrent, that it would be practical, affordable and that there were no legal or animal welfare considerations," said Inspector Jamieson.

"Once branded, the animal can no longer be legitimised by swopping the ear tags belonging to a dead or non-existent animal. The thieves will not be able to sell the animal at market or to a beef producer as all animals are inspected closely at these venues. Resultantly, cattle theft as a profitable enterprise becomes much less attractive." The new Chairman of the Police Community Safety Partnership in South Tyrone, Councillor P�draig Quinn, welcomed the launch of this new initiative, saying, "Dungannon and South Tyrone PCSP is delighted to see freeze- branding being implemented throughout the Borough and hopes that farmers will avail of this service." The scheme has been welcomed by a number of businesses and organisations including DARD Veterinary Enforcement Branch, the Ulster Farmers Union (NFU), Clogher farmers mart, Granville Farmers' Mart, Dungannon and Fane Valley Co-op.

The approximate costs involved in the procedure appear to be similar across the various providers, at �3.25 + VAT per animal. It has been agreed with DARD and the UFU that the standard practice of branding the last three digits of the animal's ear tag number on either the rump or shoulder would be the agreed standard practice.