Scots’ success harmed England over sheep ID

Frank Pedley at the 2004 Great Yorkshire Show, with one of his late wife's champion Wensleydales
Frank Pedley at the 2004 Great Yorkshire Show, with one of his late wife's champion Wensleydales
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ENGLAND & Wales were denied a deal on electronic ID for sheep because Scotland was demonstrating that the system could be run better, the Yorkshire Post can reveal.

The National Sheep Association and the NFU have both expressed dismay at a disappointing reaction from the European Commission’s agriculture department to their case for tolerance in enforcement of EID law.

But the European authorities thought Scotland had already shown that teething problems with EID systems could be overcome – albeit with the help of taxpayers’ money, through the devolved government in Edinburgh.

EID was adopted as a European requirement in response to the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic. The idea is that eventually the history of all animals will always be instantly traceable, through micro-chipped ear tags.

The British have more sheep than most of Europe and a stratified system of breeding and fattening means they are moved about quite a lot.

Defra and its partners in the devolved governments have been arguing that the cost of full compliance with EID will be disproportionate and they need more leeway.

But the best they could get was a late start – EID for most sheep from the beginning of this year and regulations in full from the beginning of next.

By the time most farmers and markets had to deal with the technology, they were already against it. And their early experiences convinced them they were right.

To save costs, Defra was persuaded to take advantage of a rule allowing most movement recording to be done at markets and abattoirs, rather than on-farm. But “race readers”, designed to read a lot of sheep on the run, proved problematic.

At the end of last year, as the first deadline approached, Ministers from Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Stormont, met EU food safety commissioner John Dalli to ask for flexibility in the requirement for fines for non-compliance – to cover cases where the technology rather than the farmer had failed.

Everyone agreed Mr Dalli had been sympathetic. But it was a different story when another delegation went to Brussels this month for a meeting with Dacian Ciolos’s Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development (known as DG Agri).

Afterwards, NFU livestock board chairman Alistair Mackintosh said the DG Agri hard line was “truly incomprehensible”.

He said: “The NFU worked hard to achieve a derogation which allowed the introduction of third parties to carry out electronic reads on behalf of the producer.

“The success of this derogation relied heavily on the acceptance of tolerance. Without it, farmers will have to achieve 100 per cent accuracy, which is impossible.”

The sheep association’s chairman, Jonathan Barber, expressed “anger and amazement” at the news from Brussels.

He said: “Without tolerance in the EID regulations, the worst recording nightmares of sheep farmers potentially become a reality.”

Defra said it was still seeking clarification of the DG Agri position. However, the Yorkshire Post has seen an EC civil service memo explaining: “The EC’s margin of manoeuvre is limited. Any permanent tolerance taken towards the UK may be seen as discriminatory vis-à-vis the rest of EU Member States. In addition, it would be difficult for the Commission to support any solution which could call into question fundamental elements of the functioning of the EID system.

“The implementation in Scotland looks satisfactory. This suggests that the system can work properly with the tools available. It would seem that Scotland has progressed further than England and Wales.”

The memo also says there is some flexibility already in the system. It is not necessary, it says, to fine farmers for every lost ear tag – or for any other omission – if they are doing their best to put it right. However, Chris Dodds, secretary of the Livestock Auctioneers Association, said yesterday: “That may be the message they are giving you but it is not the message they are giving us.”

Mr Dodds, based in Carlisle, added: “The Scots are using the same machines and need the same flexibility as we do in England, and have joined us in asking for it.”

However, he said, the Scots had more electronic ear-tags per flock, because of tighter rules than Defra imposed; and had made a start on a national database, such as Brussels wants to see, because the Scottish government subsidised an early start with the technology.

This week, NFU Scotland joined with NFU, NFU Cymru and the Ulster Farmers Union, in calling on the European Commission to think again on the flexibility issue. They said Westminster Agriculture Minister James Paice had promised to keep fighting the point and the European federation of farmers’ unions, COPA, was backing the UK stance.

The National Sheep Association has announced the departure of chief executive Peter Morris to work for Vion Foods.

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