THE Outback sheep duffers are back.
A new generation of sheep and cattle thieves is making off with livestock worth many millions of dollars, the Adelaide Advertiser
Equipped with specially adapted transport including horse floats, small trucks and even emptied caravans, thefts of 30 or 40 sheep at a time are common.
The high crime rate on South Australian farms soared to 97 individual cases of sheep or cattle thefts involving 4771 animals worth $814,000 in the second half of last year.
Poddy dodging - the stealing of unbranded calves - and sheep and cattle duffing have been an art form in the Australian Outback since white settlement.
But in the 21st century, the high price of livestock has raised the stakes in a new range war.
In some of the largest thefts, flocks of up to 2500 sheep worth several hundred thousand dollars have been stolen in the South Australian pastoral country in the past few years.
Helped by the improved ease with which criminal elements can move around country areas along modern highways, the theft of livestock, wool and other farm goods has soared nationwide in more than two decades since various stock squads were dumped around Australia.
Some incidents have become major talking points, dividing communities and raising fears about the future of families.
The increasing problem has brought a new focus from South Australian Police, which is not yet winning the war but it is starting to make inroads, apprehending a gang of thieves for stealing valuable bales of wool from pastoralists in the Peterborough region.
They are also closing in on sheep duffers, quietly gathering evidence about various people and activities as they attempt to build cases that will stand up in court.
In other cases, country butchers have been quietly investigated for slaughtering stolen livestock, but it is difficult to mount a case when the evidence has been destroyed.
Investigations have also been carried out involving incidents where sheep have been found on other pastoralists' properties, but the difficulty of proving intent to steal has made prosecutions difficult.
South Australia Police Northern Operations service co-ordinator Chief Superintendent Fred Trueman said the country had been a very fertile feeding ground for livestock thefts because there had been little or no security.
Following increased agitation by the SA Farmers Federation in 2010, it ultimately led to a significantly increased focus on livestock thefts by South Australian Police, with the introduction of Operation Poach in mid 2011.
Covert surveillance measures were adopted and country officers were specially trained to tackle livestock thefts as part of their general policing duties under Operation Poach.
"Clearly, checking your stock, checking your fences, checking your gates regularly is very important in terms of early identification and the use of some of this fairly cheap surveillance equipment in key locations helps, and also being aware of who is moving in the community," he said.
"On one occasion, it was a security camera that helped us identify that someone was engaged in activity in someone else's paddock even though that has not come to a resolution, but it has provided very helpful intelligence."
The high level of theft has seen an increasing level of suspicion among pastoralists as they scrutinise their boundaries for signs of disturbance, with security cameras and other surveillance measures.