Not for the first time in farming we have a difference of opinion between those who see any new legislation as expensive red tape and those who think that what looks like a problem could actually be used to their advantage.
I mean the “this one will run and run” argument about electronic ear-tag identification (EID) of individual sheep. When the EC announced plans for electronic tags for every sheep several years ago it inspired a 10,000-signature protest, led by Borders sheep farmers. In spite of that, and as expected, the new rules were introduced. Now, two years into EID and after some minor concessions on the grounds that many sheep never leave the farm they are born on until slaughter, efforts continue for further relaxation. The most recent was the trip to Brussels last week by representatives of all four UK farmers’ unions, and the Irish union, with backing from farmers’ organisations in other EU countries, to have the rules simplified further.
Rob Livesey, NFU Scotland’s livestock committee chairman and a Borders farmer, said: “The backing given to us by the majority of sheep-keeping nations across Europe helps heap pressure on the commission for reform of the regulation sooner rather than later.”
One problem for anti-EID protesters is that the UK, particularly Scotland, has the biggest average size flocks. In many EU states, flocks are small and the problems of dealing with a few dozen sheep to be electronically tagged is quite different from dealing with several thousand sheep on a Scottish hill.
But, said Mr Livesey, it was clear from recent meetings that sheep farmers across Europe, large scale or small, dislike the EID rules: “The list of issues is growing and many more in the EU now share our worries about animal welfare problems, cross-compliance penalties” – that is, possible loss of subsidy for not meeting the EID rules – “and problems with the tags themselves.”
Anti-EID protesters insist that the tagging rules for sheep born and retained for life in one ownership cause problems while adding nothing to traceability and disease control measures – the commission’s reason for introducing the legislation. Sheep should only need to be tagged, say protesters, if and when they leave the farm they were born on.
Protesters also claim that the EID system is not, and probably never can be, 100 per cent accurate and reliable. The result is that when cross-checks are made on subsidy claims, farmers can be penalised for mistakes caused by technology.
Manual reading rather than electronic reading for large numbers of sheep is, they say, not feasible. Nor is it necessarily 100 per cent accurate. What is needed, they say, is a simple, workable system that allows for less than 100 per cent accuracy.
As the comedian Al Read used to say long ago: “They’ll be lucky, I say, they’ll be lucky,” to get much change out of the commission. But it won’t stop the farmers’ unions trying, using, in my opinion, a lot of time, effort and money that could be better used for other purposes. Then again, as has been pointed out to me several times, I’m not running a flock of several thousand ewes. However, I would argue that among those who are running large flocks and successful sheep businesses, some are using individual identification and recording to improve management, performance and profits – in much the same way, it might be said, as those who have been recording sheep performance for many years using other methods.
It must make sense to get as much objective information as possible about sheep in a flock rather than relying on subjective impressions and who gets top price at St Boswells mart on a Monday.
It has been proved that electronic tagging and recording can do that and at Scotsheep this week in Ayrshire, Quality Meat Scotland’s sheep strategy group was encouraging farmers to at least try to use the system to their advantage.
Kathy Peebles, QMS livestock development manager, said of the meetings she plans for sheep farmers throughout Scotland over the next few months: “Sheep farmers need to overcome their fear of EID technology to help identify good performers in their flock and to identify which EID reader does the job you want it to do.”
EID and a good reader make it possible to trace the performance of a lamb from birth to slaughter, providing valuable information that can be used to plan and improve overall flock performance.
Response to the QMS initiative will be interesting. But did anti-EID protesters picket the QMS stand at Scotsheep? I’m waiting to hear.
And will June weather be as variable as that of May and April? It didn’t make a great start over the Jubilee weekend. That didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the Royalists among us although it probably didn’t do much to raise the spirits of farmers.