10 September 1999

TAGGING- ITSNEARLYHERE

Rumours are rife about impending sheep tagging legislation

and what it will involve for producers.

John Burns investigates

EU officials would like sheep to be individually identified in an effort to guard against fraud and improve traceability.

But it is not defrauding the Sheep Annual Premium Scheme which is occupying officials minds, it is traceability and how this can be best implemented to safeguard the sheep industry against disease outbreaks or sheep meat problems.

The MLC reports that an increasing number of overseas buyers are seeking improved identification and traceability, which is something the British sheep industry is in a position to deliver – provided sheep producers co-operate with tagging proposals.

For this reason, the MLC has asked producers to support its voluntary sheep tagging scheme this autumn, using tags carrying only the farms alpha-numeric flock number. It is not necessary to have individual numbers for each sheep, but if producers wish, they can be used.

Voluntary status

Because of the schemes voluntary status, no tags are officially recommended, but MLC industry development adviser Archie Sains suggests tag choice will be a compromise between durability and cost, and will be influenced by the sheeps life expectancy.

Most tag manufacturers sell a cheap tag suitable for slaughter lambs and more expensive tags, designed to last for the sheeps lifetime, to use in breeding stock. All registered sheep producers have an official flock number. When cattle and sheep are kept the flock number is likely to be the same as the herd number.

But the compulsory sheep tagging scheme remains under discussion by MAFF and sheep industry representatives. The latest position is that by next spring the government will come forward with formal proposals for a compulsory tagging scheme.

Before then a number of issues have to be settled, including what should be on the tag. MAFF is proposing each sheep should be identified by a tag, before it leaves the farm of birth, marked with a UK stamp and the farms alpha-numeric flock number. Experts deem that individual numbers for each sheep will not be necessary on the flock tag.

Tagged before export

Sheep to be exported already have to be tagged before they leave the UK, using individual tag numbers. For ease of administration, exporters use their own tags with sequential numbers. If this requirement continues after compulsory tagging on the farm of birth is introduced, the exporter will be faced with a choice of either reading and recording thousands of individual tag numbers from many different flocks, or putting in a second tag recording the block of numbers which covers the load.

The latter approach will surely raise the question of whether it is desirable to have two eartags in one sheep, almost certainly showing two different flock numbers.

For movement of sheep within the UK it is likely that colour marking groups of sheep and recording movements on that basis will continue to be sufficient. And even though sheep will also need eartags with flockmarks from next spring, it is unlikely to be necessary to record their numbers in the movements book.

Some industry representatives still believe, however, that EU rules do not insist on the letters UK appearing on tags, and if they are included it will become an EU official tag, meaning a more complicated system will follow. That vigorous debate continues within the industry.