ID cards for sheep? Must be another E-ewe edict

IT IS said that counting sheep is a good way to bring on sleep. But the prospect of counting 7,131,000 is having the opposite effect and causing sleepless nights for Scotland's farmers.

There is barely a remote glen or inhospitable mountainside in the country without a distant white speck. Ordinarily, those charged with their welfare are content to let their flock lazily graze, tending to them only when necessary.

Soon, however, the hills may play host to maddening chases, as a proposal from Brussels asks that Scotland's sheep population – 7,131,000 at the last count – be electronically tagged: the equivalent of barcodes for sheep.

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So worried are Scotland's sheep farmers about the proposed rules that next month they are taking their fight to the top brass of the European Union. They will say that the new process is neither cost-effective, accurate nor practical.

Given Scotland has the largest breeding flock in all of Europe, there are fears the measures could herald the demise of an industry already facing a perilous future.

More than 8,000 sheep farmers north of the Border have put their name to a petition stating unequivocally their objections to the directive.

The Electronic Identification (EID) scheme, first mooted a decade ago, is due to become operational in 2010. It is envisaged by the EU as the best way of tracing animal movements, and stemming the spread of disease.

However, some estimate it could cost Scotland's farmers 10 million a year, with the price of a single tag about 1.25.

MSP John Scott, who farms 800 ewes in Ballantrae, South Ayrshire, told The Scotsman EID will damage a entire way of life.

Mr Scott, the Tory spokesman for rural development and the environment, said: "At a time when livestock, and particularly sheep, are leaving Scotland's hills and uplands in their tens of thousands, EID is one extra cost that can be ill-afforded.

"There's no real benefit to it. We should be looking to reduce unnecessary costs and regulations, given the costs of fertiliser have tripled in the last two years and fuel costs have increased by 60 to 70 per cent in the last year. We can't allow EID to happen."

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The system works by embedding a radio frequency micro-chip in an ear tag, which can then be read by scanners. The signal is recorded, and can be sent to a central database to trace the animal's movements. That, at least, is the theory.

Tentative trials of EID in Scotland have been far from conclusive, with one test study showing that tags were unable to be read at abattoirs and livestock auction markets who, along with individual farmers, will be charged with monitoring movements. In one study at an auction market, the tags of as many as one in four sheep were not picked up.

Bob Carruth, communications director for NFU Scotland, said: "Sheep farmers are already struggling to get a reasonable return. If you factor-in the additional costs of the EID scheme, then it will be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

"We have the largest sheep population in Europe, and half of those are hill sheep in remote areas, not the kind of sheep that are handled every day.

"It is a scheme that has some merit for countries with far smaller sheep numbers. It should be a voluntary option for member nations. For that reason, we are trying to get EID taken off of the statute book."

Mr Carruth pointed out that the average hill farm in Scotland has an income in the region of 6,000, a figure that will only decrease with the advent of EID.

"It's totally impractical to have farmers trying to tag sheep up mountainous and upland areas in all kinds of weather," Mr Carruth added.

"It's only right and proper to have a system of movement in place but, the reality is, the existing 'batch' system we have satisfies all the requirements. We can trace sheep from the farm to the fork."

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George Milne, development officer of the National Sheep Association in Scotland, said: "The industry is experiencing severe financial pressure as well as a substantial loss in ewe numbers. There is no doubt the unnecessary cost and practical difficulties of the proposed regulations will cause a further exodus of breeding sheep and a resultant deterioration of the social fabric in many parts of Scotland, which are already on the edge of economic viability."

A new EID pilot study, funded by the Scottish Government, keen to ascertain the effectiveness of the system, began this week. While its efficiency is as yet unclear, Mr Carruth suggested it would not be a surprise to find similar results as before.

"There are problems with the scanners," he said. "I'm not going to pre-empt the trial, but the same issues are emerging.

"You only have to look at the annual sheep sale in Lairg (in Sutherland] . You have 24,000 animals going through the ring – how do you scan them all?"



Scotland's sheep population


Scotland's sheep population as of 1997


Drop in number of sheep in the past twelve months


Decline in number of breeding ewes over the past nine years


Amount of sheepmeat in tonnes produced a year by Scotland's sheep farms


Value of the nation's sheep farming sector

1,000 - 2000

Set-up costs of EID scheme for farmers, estimated by DEFRA


Estimated cost of one EID tag


Estimated cost to a farmer tagging one sheep under the EID scheme


Number of ewes in Europe