Still room to move on sheep tagging

The door to reform on sheep electronic tagging (EID) is not closed, according to farmers’ leaders after a meeting with European Commission officials last week.

The gathering in Brussels was organised by Liberal Democrat MEP George Lyon and attended by Stow farmer and NFU Scotland president Nigel Miller, along with George Milne and John Cameron of the National Sheep Association Scotland. They urged commission officials to change EID regulations so home-bred ewes only need to be double-tagged electronically when they leave the farm they were born on.

Afterwards, the farming representatives issued a joint statement, saying: “It was a tough meeting. The commission officials challenged us to come forward with concrete proposals on how a single-tag system for breeding sheep on the holding of birth might work.

“It is clear the commission is reluctant to open any process aimed at making EID more manageable unless that proposal is robust and could garner the support of other member states.

“We will continue a dialogue with the commission to refine a workable proposal that would give us the opportunity to make some progress on this really difficult issue.

“The door to reform is not completely closed.”

Farmers and the Scottish Government have been gathering information on EID and tag read rates from a pilot scheme – Scot EID – for more than three years.

Latest figures from the trial, published earlier this month, show a batch read rate of 94.9 per cent for 2011 – it was 95.1 per cent in 2010. Last year’s testing took in 3,370,762 sheep, read within 228,677 batches at both markets and abattoirs. The read rate for overall sheep was 93.5 per cent last year while in 2010 it was 93.8 per cent.

And for the first time 815,466 sheep with mixed tag types, new and older, were read last year when the overall read rate was 92.18 per cent, also indicating that read rates decreased by about three per cent over 600 days.

Speaking before the meeting, Mr Miller said: “The figures are clear justification for reform of the existing regulation. Both the 2010 and 2011 statistics expose the limitations of both the technology and the tags. The figures show the need for Europe to put in place a more proportionate compliance system.”

He continued: “There is also real evidence, also from Scot EID, that even with compromised read rates on electronic tags, our system delivers excellent traceability and meets all necessary requirements in terms of food safety and disease control. That should be recognised by the European Commission and receive a level of backing and support from it.

“For Scottish sheep keepers, we need to move compliance requirements away from being based on filling out paperwork and the flock register to simply focus on tagging standards at movement and then properly recording those movements of sheep.”

He describes only double tagging home-bred ewes when they leave their home farm as common sense.

“It would allow them to be managed on farm with a single flock identifier and significantly reduce compliance problems, ear tag damage and ear tag retention issues.

“These are things that can further enhance traceability rather than the perception that the opposite would be achieved,” said Mr Miller.

NSA Scotland chairman and Heriot farmer Jimmy Sinclair said: “The UK is the biggest sheep producer in Europe, but we don’t seem to have any say in what happens when it comes to making the rules. There are sheep on farms that have never moved, yet they have got to be tagged. It’s farcical.

“We have got to continue to try to explore other options.”