Industry proposes to lift sheep ID burden
By Marianne Curtis
ESCAPING the bureaucratic burden of having to individually identify lambs and record all movements could be possible for sheep producers if industry proposals are adopted by DEFRA.
Foot-and-mouth highlighted problems with sheep traceability which DEFRA is keen to address from an animal health standpoint, says MLC head of sheep strategy, David Croston. "DEFRA still has concerns about disease spread and wants the sheep industry to provide traceability."
Sheep identification legislation requires animals to be tagged with a flock mark before leaving their birth holding and movements recorded.
But there are industry concerns that a requirement for unique individual tagging may be the next step. National Sheep Association chief executive, John Thorley, says he has been in discussions with DEFRA since June and believes it is amenable to a workable alternative.
"It would be a nightmare if everything had to be individually identified and these numbers recorded each time sheep moved. Imagine sorting hundreds of lambs on a rainy day trying to read ear-tags and write them in a book. The opportunity for error would be massive."
Under current proposals, as an interim measure for 2002, the flock mark system will remain with no requirement to uniquely identify lambs. When lambs leave the birth holding and are sold to a farm for finishing, if they go directly to the abattoir from the second farm a temporary mark can be used. But if they go to a third holding, they will have to be identified with the second farms flock mark before leaving it, says Mr Thorley.
Proposals for record keeping are also simple. "NSA has proposed that when lambs move off a holding, the flock mark and number of lambs moving is recorded in triplicate. One copy is held by the producer, the second goes with lambs to the new holding or abattoir and the third goes to the local authority to be entered in a database."
Mr Croston agrees the system must be kept workable for producers. "This will be better than an individual identification and paper trail system, which would be difficult to operate. It will only be possible to achieve individual identification when electronic ID is further developed."
Although electronic tags and readers are reliable, the infrastructure is not in place to support a system of individual electronic ID, says Mr Croston. "It would require a huge database, much larger than the current cattle database, to cope with the larger number of sheep movements. Whichever ID route is taken in the future, it must be affordable.
"We are awaiting results from the European IDEA trial on electronic identification which will help determine the way forward. But I expect this individual ID method to be a few years away."
Geoff Rhodes, managing director of tag maker Ritchey, is less confident that producers will escape individual ID requirements in the short term. He says 60% of his companys new lamb tag orders are for numbers unique to individual animals.
"Two months ago, 30% of lamb tag orders were for individual numbers, but this has risen dramatically. A requirement for individual tagging in Scotland shook producers elsewhere.
"We are encouraging producers to order individual tags because they cost less than 2p each extra. Yet, if legislation comes in and flockmasters are stuck with flockmark tags, they will have to re-order, which will cost more overall."
Although producers have the option of ordering unique individual tags, there is only likely to be a requirement to record the flock mark, says Mr Croston.
An announcement on sheep ID is expected from DEFRA soon, says Mr Thorley. But he believes a long-term solution for traceability must be put in place for all EU flocks to prevent the UK being put at a disadvantage. *
• Unique ID unlikely.
• Multiple tagging preferred.
• Simple recording system.