11 February 2000

DONT RUSH IN – LOOK AT OPTIONS

SCOTLANDS cattle industry must not rush into electronic identification (EID) until it has evaluated the options and future implications more fully.

According to Richard Webber, director of Exmoor-based Shearwell Data, any system adopted in Scotland in the short-term will not be endorsed by the EU until its own EID trial, being carried out in six countries, is completed in 2002.

He also says that most animals involved in the EU trial are fitted with boluses, rather than ear tags or identi-chips.

Yet, in Scotland, everyone considering EID thinks of nothing but ear tags. Not only have boluses not been tried north of the border, Mr Webber also fears that the desktop study on which Scottish ministers are likely to base any decision on national EID will not have evaluated their full potential.

Although his company sells electronic tags and boluses, Mr Webber insists his fear that Scotland will soon move to EID has nothing to do with commercial considerations.

In the south-west of England and in Wales, electronic boluses have been used for the past 10 years, involving some 20,000 cattle. "I would urge Ross Finnie, the Scottish minister, to come and look at our trial data before he makes any decision."

He believes that, on a UK-basis, using electronic boluses in cattle and sheep could save the industry £50m a year, simply because they can be recycled.

The EU trial – the so-called IDEA project – was established with the aim of providing a system of identifying cattle, sheep and goats. One of the main considerations is to find a system that would prevent fraudulent subsidy claims. Tags, he says, can always be removed and replaced. Boluses, however, are permanent. "And an animal can still be identified even if it has lost its ear tags."

Fears raised by some about boluses migrating inside an animal and potentially ending up in the food chain are ridiculous. "It just cant happen," says Mr Webber. "That is such a red herring."

He also fears that, if Scotland goes ahead with electronic tags, using the half duplex frequency (HDX) the industry could find itself in trouble in a few years time if Europe insists on EID for sheep. "The HDX devices are too big for lambs; they would need full duplex (FDX). So, if Scottish farmers are rushed into a system of cattle identification using HDX, with electronic readers able to cope with that frequency only, what happens if EID for sheep becomes compulsory?"

Urging extreme caution, Mr Webber concludes that, should Scotland adopt electronic tagging for all its cattle, farmers must ensure that they do not end up with only one choice of tag from a single manufacturer. "There must be competition in the market. Otherwise the price of electronic devices will not come down."

Electronic readers that can identify both HDX and FDX devices are now available, so there is no reason why a national EID scheme should rely on only one of the frequencies. That, too, would remove any potential problems if sheep EID is introduced, he says.

Boluses could be a better option than tagging, believes Richard Webber – particularly if the EU insists sheep and goats must be electronically identified too.