Neale McQuistin

My mother-in-law has put one over on me. I’m now cursing those old Blackface ewes I bought from her two years ago for keeping their teeth and lasting so well. If only they had drowned in a ditch or croaked for no reason at all, like normal old sheep, they would not have survived to become my latest source of aggravation – my historic flock.

A whole new world of pain opened up for sheep farmers on 31 December 2014. If you thought tagging regulations were complicated before, then things just got worse. 

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If you should happen to have sheep on your holding born before 2010, then be afraid dear reader, be very afraid. There are traps you could fall into if you are not careful. Trust no one’s advice, especially friends and neighbours. If they have no historic sheep of their own, they will probably sound like an expert on the subject and this will surely lead you down the path to perdition. Well, maybe that’s a bit over the top, but be careful and get advice if you are unsure what to do.

The regulations are a strange blend of what you must do and what you can do, all held together with a sticky amount of what it would be best to do.

What you could do is, nothing, until you have to. If you have no intention of moving your older sheep anywhere, then that would seem like the best option.

For some reason, like a fool, on this occasion, I rushed in and gave my historic flock the complete makeover. This was in spite of the fact I’ve no intention of moving them anywhere until the autumn, unless it is to that big pasture in the sky.

At the moment, the man who takes them there – usually one at a time – doesn’t read their tags. Once that does start to happen the fun will really begin. Retagging a ewe that has died overnight and has been dined on by a fox will become a new challenge in terms of traceability and ingenuity; the ears are always the entrée for Renard.

“In hindsight it would have been far better if I had never retagged them until the day before they were due to go on to the lorry in the autumn. At least then some of the evidence that might incriminate me would be carted away before any trial began.” Neale McQuistin

However, now that I’ve been an eager beaver and retagged my old girls, I’ve now exposed myself to the possibility of having infringed any one of the myriad of rules regarding the retagging of the historic flock.

I now have more than a hundred potential mistakes grazing out there waiting to be picked over in the event of an inspection. 

In hindsight it would have been far better if I had never retagged them until the day before they were due to go on to the lorry in the autumn. At least then some of the evidence that might incriminate me would be carted away before any trial began.

And talking about trials, wait till you start to retag a mob of sheep. No fewer than eight pieces of equipment are needed to perform the operation. You need: foot-shears to cut out the old tag, glasses to read the tag you cut out, tag applicators, new tags, a pencil to write down the number of the old tag, a penknife to put a new point on the pencil after you drop it, notepad to write on, and a small stone to set on top of the notepad as a puff of wind will always see it landing in “the gitters”. 

There will be major surgery performed in hospitals in the some of the more remote parts of Scotland where fewer instruments are used. 

Neale McQuistin
Neale McQuistin is an upland beef and sheep farmer in South West Scotland. He farms 365 hectares in partnership with his wife, Janet, much of which is under stewardship for wildlife.