Improved animal identification was one of the consequences of both the BSE and foot-and-mouth crises. All cattle now have an individual passport in a scheme which is administered by the British Cattle Movement Service in Whitehaven, Cumbria. There have been some minor problems, but the regime now works well and farmers have learnt to adapt.
However, sheep identification is much more problematical. Brussels originally sought to bring in individual identification for every sheep in Europe. That is just about workable in many continental countries where flocks are relatively small, but impossible in the UK where the vast majority of sheep are run in large numbers under extensive conditions. Accordingly, the UK was granted a derogation by Brussels which permitted farmers to use a batch system. In other words, the tags are not individually numbered, but instead carry the farm code.
Commission officials first granted the derogation in July 2005 and it was then extended last June with a stern warning that producers must strictly adhere to the rules. The derogation is due to expire on 30 June, 2007, but the UK has applied for a further extension while the industry has also requested that the introduction of electronic identification for all sheep should be delayed beyond its proposed date of 1 January, 2008. The appropriate technology is simply not yet reliable.
In late February a team of inspectors from the EU's food and veterinary office visited the UK to check that the current system was operating satisfactorily. Farms in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland were visited in addition to several livestock markets. The team from Brussels discovered a range of anomalies and some less than perfect paperwork. The majority of errors were unearthed in Northern Ireland. A collection centre where sheep were gathered before export to the Irish Republic was shut down with immediate effect. The one Scottish inspection was more than up to scratch.
The EU inspectors are compiling a report which will be presented to the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in London as well as to the devolved administrations. The fear is that the UK may be forced to move towards a double tagging regime unless there are clear signs that the current system is far more robust. Informed sources reckon that any decision to extend the existing derogation beyond the end of June will be very close.
Peter Morris, the chief executive of the National Sheep Association, commented: "It's in the balance. There is no doubt that the batch system can produce the necessary results in terms of traceability and disease control. The problem is that a very small minority are not complying with the rules and putting the whole industry at risk."
In Scotland it is estimated that having individual sheep ID could cost the industry upwards of 10 million each year. But Kelvin Pate, the chairman of the NFUS livestock committee, is hopeful that a satisfactory resolution can be achieved. He said: "We want a sheep traceability system that works. We are convinced that the batch approach is effective, but if there are areas where we can do better, then let's sit down round the table and discuss matters.
"However, I think it is clear that double tagging just can't work in the Scottish situation. Aside from the massive financial bill that it would entail, it would be impossible to operate on the ground, given the structure of the industry. I think common sense will prevail."
But, as ever, politics are likely to come into play. The French, in particular, are always keen to protect their domestic producers. Any moves to limit exports of UK lamb would be welcomed by farmers in France who currently enjoy the highest lamb prices in Europe.