The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72
The first question to be settled is—Does sheep stealing exist to such an extent as to require exceptional legislation? I think it does. The repeated reference to this crime in the daily papers supports the contention, whilst the opinion of the police is that the crime is more general than is supposed. The sheep freezing and boiling down industries have provided ready, numerous, and easily accessible markets. Hence present conditions offer a premium to the sheep stealer, who is able to mix up small lots of stolen sheep with large drafts, and in a few days they are lost to view, all means of tracing them being destroyed. It is out of the question to expect the freezing companies to keep a register of the brands, sexes, &c., of sheep slaughtered. It is doubtful if ten per cent, of the butchers who slaughter keep such a book as is required by section 26 of the "Slaughterhouses Act, 1877." All that can be hoped for is to devise some means by which the sheep stealer may be so entangled that he will fear to place his feet within the meshes of the law. My proposal rests on the principle that prevention is better than cure.
Briefly, I think the only practicable method of preventing sheep stealing is to make every transaction in sheep a matter of registration at a central office. It would work in this way. On a purchase or exchange of sheep being effected, a triplicate form would require to be filled up. One copy would be kept by the seller, one would be taken by the buyer, and it would be the buyer's duty to see that the third copy was, within twenty-four hours of the transaction being completed, sent by post to the Registrar of Sheep of the district. The form should be short and simple. [See Form A annexed]. It should set out only the following particulars:—(1) Class of sheep sold. (2) The page 2 number. (3) Name and address of seller. (4) Name and address of buyer. (5) Date and place of sale. It should also be signed by both parties. The sale forms should be about the size of a bank cheque, obtainable only from the Registrar of Sheep, and properly numbered, and delivered free of charge on application to every registered sheepowner. No sale or purchase of sheep should be legal unless supported by such a form, and a heavy penalty should be attached to any evasion of the law. The forms addressed to Registrars of Sheep should be carried free of charge per post, the same as claims to vote. The numbering and recording of forms sent out would act as a preventive of forgery of the sale forms. Now let us see what the effect of this system would be. In the first place, the signature of the seller would be an acknowledgment from which he could not escape. If, for example, a thief residing at Waimate had stolen fifty fat crossbred two-tooth ewes from a farmer in that locality, whenever and wherever he disposed of them he must acknowledge the sale. Let us suppose that in offering them to a butcher twenty-five miles away, he demurs to filling up the legal form. The butcher's suspicions would be at once aroused, as he would know that only a man who had some reason for secrecy would seek to hide the fact that he was selling the sheep. He would probably demand of the seller the production of his purchase note. Again, if the butcher purchased the sheep at a considerable discount without filling up the legal form as a guarantee of his position, he would himself run the risk of having to stand his trial for being in possession of sheep without proper warrant, in addition to the possible penalty for not filling up the registration paper. In the second place, the registration would provide a rapid and easy means of tracing the transactions in sheep of suspected persons. Let me again suppose that a man of doubtful reputation, and owning perhaps one or two hundred sheep, is found in the course of the year to be selling a considerable number. An examination of the register would show whether or not he had purchased sheep to the number of his sales, also the class of sheep and the names of the sellers. If any doubt existed, a short cut to detection would be found by simply inspecting several of the lots of sheep he had sold (always provided they had not been slaughtered). Great assistance could be rendered in this matter by sheepowners who had lost sheep sending details of brands, sexes, earmarks, &c., to the police. The onus of the form being posted to the Registrar of Sheep is cast upon the buyer, as he is interested, for his own protection, in the registration being effected. The seller (if dishonest) would be interested in the registration being stopped. The page 3 bonà fide buyer has no interest in withholding the fact of his purchase. What has been written so far applies to private sale. The same method would be applied to public sales, the auctioneers filling up the forms on behalf of both parties, and their signatures being binding. [See Forms B and C annexed]. Probably the auctioneers, as a class, will be most opposed to my proposal, on the ground that it will involve unremunerative work upon them. The amount of work involved would, however, be very small. They would be provided with duplicate forms to hand buyer and seller [Form C], and a special form for the Registrar of Sheep [Form D], on which the whole of their transactions at each sale could be shown. In all cases the signatures of the auctioneers would be binding upon the parties who instructed or bought from them. Besides, I may remind the auctioneers that as they make money out of the transactions in sheep, it is not unreasonable that they should be expected to take a little trouble in the interest of their clients who are sheepowners. It is hardly necessary to point out that they would only be required to fill up forms in the case of sales effected through their agency. Would the system suggested be expensive, so far as the State is concerned? I do not think so. There would of course be required a few extra clerks, as the books would need to be kept closely up to the daily registrations; but the expenditure of a few hundreds by the State would be a mere bagatelle in comparison with the magnitude of the interests involved. It is of immense importance that sheep stealing should be stamped out. There is also the fact to be borne in mind that the additional protection secured by my proposals would do much to reconcile sheepowners to the special tax now levied upon their flocks. No doubt many of the details of these suggestions will be open to criticism, but the general idea is commended to experts, as a possible means of entangling the feet of sheep stealers to an extent which would frighten some at least of them out of their present remunerative occupation. Of course, to recur to my opening remark, the first question to be settled is this—Is sheep stealing rife to an extent which calls for special legislation? If the answer is in the affimative, preventive measures must be sought for. It may also be necessary, for a few years, to raise the minimum penalty for the crime of sheep stealing.