ELECTRONIC IDENTIFICATION (EID) of sheep can work in some situations, but there are still issues to be resolved, according to the interim report of DEFRA’s EID trial, run by ADAS.

With just over three years to go until the EU’s target date of 2008 for EID of all sheep, the report states there are still issues to be resolved in the development of electronic devices suitable for sheep and lambs.

While this statement is worrying, it is no surprise, reckons NSA policy director Peter Morris. “Manufacturers are in a dilemma, without market growth they are unwilling to commit capital to product development.”

But a DEFRA spokeswoman says the issues to be resolved tend to be of design, rather than fundamental deficiencies in the underlying technology. “Issues such as tag type, losses and reading reliability are being recorded.”

However, assessing the quality of equipment is not one of the trial’s aims, says Mr Morris. “The trial was set up to identify levels of training and support needed and identify aptitude and attitude factors related to the use and potential uptake of EID.

“Unfortunately, people’s attitudes to EID will be largely based on the equipment’s usefulness. If the equipment isn’t fit for the job, then people will be less willing to use it.”

DEFRA disputes this, suggesting that participating producers are still convinced that EID is the way forward. But trial participant, Peter Delbridge of South Molton, Devon, says his view of EID has changed since the trial began. “When we started I was quite keen, but now I can’t see what EID can give us that we haven’t already got. The EID system we are using takes too long and is impractical and inflexible.”

The report also suggests there may be a problem supplying enough EID equipment in time for UK producers to meet the EU deadline of 2008. “The most immediate issue is the magnitude of the task involved in supplying the quantities of EID devices required to roll out nationally,” states the report.

Mr Morris suggests EID should be phased in over time, rather than introduced overnight. “It would be physically impossible to introduce EID in one step, due to size and complexity of the industry.”

But Richard Webber of Shearwell Data, whose equipment is not being used in the trial, believes supplying enough microchips to identify animals will not be a problem. “We have 1m chips ready to go tomorrow. But there are other issues to be overcome.”

He says that standards need adjusting to ensure devices can work in all parts of the UK industry, such as markets and abattoirs. “This has not been necessary in the EU because of the lower volumes of animals dealt with.”

Mr Delbridge, however, believes the on-farm equipment used in the trial has serious limitations. “The computer program we are using has already had three upgrades in six months and it was supposed to be ready to go when we had it.

“I also don’t believe it could be of any benefit to commercial flocks in the form we have,” he adds.