Opinion: Time to review the law on dewlap tags

Dewlap cattle management tags have been advertised widely and freely available to farmers in the UK for many years.

The tag hangs on a steel loop which is inserted into the loose flap of skin that cattle have in front of their brisket. They are easy to read from a distance and they have an amazing retention rate when compared to ear tags.

See also: Top tips for safe cattle handling to avoid injury

However, it has only come to light this year that using these tags contravenes the 2006 Animal Welfare Act. 

This came as a shock to the hundreds of farmers in the UK who have been “mistakenly” fitting them to their cattle over the last 10 years.  

The issue has also taken a list of other people by surprise as well. Ministry vets, compliance inspectors and farm assurance inspectors could not have failed to have noticed thousands of very large herbivores wearing bright yellow (illegal) tags.

All the aforementioned, including farmers, take animal welfare very seriously, and quite rightly so. No one wants to see animals suffer unnecessarily.

Pro-welfare and safety procedures

With this in mind, there are a number of procedures which are permitted to be carried out on farm animals which will actually improve their welfare.

Neale McQuistinNeale McQuistin is an upland beef and sheep farmer in south-west Scotland

Removing the horns from young cattle is a good example.

If the horns were not removed from modern dairy cows, the levels of stress and injuries the animals would inflict on each other would be unacceptable.

At the same time, the stress and the risks to the people who work with dairy cattle would also be unacceptable.

Fitting a ring into a bull’s nose is another example of a procedure that regulations allow in the interests of safety.

I can’t see a problem with doing this – just wander the pavements of Stranraer to see plenty of evidence in humans that it’s not uncomfortable to have metal rings, studs, hasps, chains and other baubles hanging from different parts of your body. 

Extensive beef farmers

Bearing all this in mind, I think the dewlap tag issue needs to be looked at again, but from an extensive beef farmer’s perspective.

Just like dairy farmers, extensive beef farmers and their animals should not be stressed or injured if it can be avoided.

Ironically, it was government legislation, introduced back in the nineties, which prompted many extensive beef farmers to start using dewlap management tags in the first place. 

Following the BSE crisis in the 1990s, cattle farmers were obligated to record the identity of the dam of every newborn calf before it was 27 days old.   

This legislation did not compromise the safety of dairy farmers as their cows live in a very controlled environment and they have very little hair growing in their ears.

But, some extensive beef farmers have native breeds of cattle which roam freely and grow hair in their ears that can obscure even the largest of ear tags.   

Very often when their cows calve their ear tags can’t be read from a safe distance. This is when a stock handler’s health and safety is put at risk and the cow is subjected to unnecessary stress.

The cow has to be restrained and the ears of the animal have to be handled in order to read their tags in these circumstances.

Fiddling with the ears of newly calved cows is a recipe for disaster that can be completely avoided if dewlap tags are being worn by very hairy cattle. 

I would suggest that one stock handler who is badly injured or even killed, while trying to read the tags on a hairy lugged coo, will be one too many.

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