A row over electronic tagging for sheep looks set to continue despite new concessions aimed at easing the burden on farmers and crofters.
Farming leaders said this week that a move by the European Commission’s standing committee on food chain and animal health to reduce the impact of electronic identification (EID) did not go far enough.
They want EID, scheduled to be introduced on 1st January next year, to be scrapped altogether, and say the current double-tagging process is perfectly adequate.
Under the measure, farmers and crofters will be obliged to individually tag their sheep and record each animal’s identity every time it is moved.
The legislation has its roots in the BSE crisis, which sparked calls for greater traceability among livestock to be introduced.
The concessions this week mean animals will be scanned at critical control points, such as markets or abattoirs, instead of farms.
That means farmers will not have to buy expensive scanning machines, which could save the industry between £7 million and £18 million a year.
However farming leaders say at the very least there should be no need to electronically tag any sheep until it leaves its holding of birth.
Perhaps just as galling for producers are claims by the National Farmers’ Union that in return for the latest concessions the UK government had to agree not to seek any further changes to the regulations.
Union officials say any cost-benefit analysis carried out after the regulation is implemented will show it is not fit for purpose.
Chairwoman of NFUS Shetland Hazel Mackenzie said Shetland would have to fight for an exemption from the move, because many sheep in the isles spend their whole lives in one holding.
“We don’t want it at all, in any way, shape or form,” she said. “The fight is not over, especially here in Shetland. We are hoping for some kind of exemption, unless the sheep were leaving Shetland.
“The fact they are saying it can take place at critical control points will make it easier on the crofter, but it’s an added expense for the slaughterhouses. When you have 3,000 sheep passing through it would be a nightmare.
“We will have to record each individual sheep movement. That’s alright if you’ve just got 20 or 30 sheep, but for someone with 1,000 sheep it would take them longer to do that than it would to get them on the boat. It offers no benefit. Sheep are able to be traced as it is with double tagging.”
Her view has been backed by Lerwick sheep breeder Brian Anderson who said livestock numbers were already spiralling downwards as producers fed up with red tape begin throwing in the towel.
“It doesn’t sort out all of the problems at all,” he said. “A few years back there were up to 143,000 sheep a year leaving Shetland in ferry boats or livestock boats.
“Last year that figure was down to 75,000. People just aren’t being encouraged to produce food. Nobody has been encouraged for years.”
Not everyone, however, is against the changes. Magnie Smith, of Pure Shetland Lamb which owns the slaughterhouse at Boddam, was relatively relaxed about the prospect of scanning sheep as they come in to the abattoir.
He sympathised with crofters perhaps intimidated by the fast-changing regulations, but said the move should cut down the seemingly never-ending paper chase that is increasingly prevalent in the industry.
“It will create a bit of bother initially because I guess in the early days there will be older sheep coming through that are not tagged, but I believe there’s a government scheme that will provide assistance towards putting in the equipment,” he said.
“It will be something else that has to be done, but at the moment we have to fax or post a written document to the people that control sheep movements, and if we scan it in it will go there automatically.
“Folk are always resistant to change, but I presume all the normal shuffling of paper will stop, and that would be a significant advantage.”
For full story, see this week’s Shetland Times.