IN ITS attempt to improve sheep traceability, the EU is keen to introduce electronic identification for breeding sheep across member states in 2008.

It reckons this will be long enough to overcome any problems with the technology and make it work. “But we aren’t there yet in the UK,” says Richard Webber, managing director of Somerset-based Shearwell Data, who has been using EID for 14 years in his own 2000-ewe flock.

Part of the problem in the UK is it wasn’t in the EU IDEA trials and is now trying to catch up, he says. But he insists the technology will be ready, particularly with the new reader his company unveiled at Smithfield in early December.

It has also developed software for a new race which stops every animal to ensure it is identified, for use in markets, abattoirs and large flocks. The current throughput of this first version is 600 sheep/hour, but he hopes this can be increased to 1000 sheep/hour.

But there is great concern about EID costs in the UK. “These costs will reduce as demand for quantity increases,” he says. Although the EU has yet to confirm whether tags will be permitted, Mr Webber already sells tags for just 75p and hopes to bring that down further. The alternative is a bolus, which currently cost from 2.25 each.

But there are huge benefits to set against the cost for those willing to use it in a positive way, he says. With EID in abattoirs and markets allowing feedback of information on individual sheep, producers will see which breeds or crossbreds work best, which is beneficial in commercial and pedigree flocks.

However, he cautions against trying to use handheld readers in flocks above 500 ewes. “They are too slow to be practical in large flocks.”

On larger flocks, he also believes there is much to gain from having a race reader. It can help sort sheep, record which sheep have had treatments and save labour.

For a 1000-ewe flock, spreading equipment costs over five years, labour savings when handling four times a year mean the annual cost is just 0.08p a sheep, says Mr Webber.

“EID also allows you to improve flock management in a way that was not possible before, particularly when you are dealing with 27 different Scrapie genotypes and want to put them to the right ram.” His newest race can draft sheep in up to five directions and 27 different groups.