It's all in the baa-codes as Skipton embraces electronic sheep marts

THE switch-on of an eight-foot-long box covered in winking lights at Skipton Mart this Wednesday was a turning point in the saga of EID - meaning electronic identification, as required for sheep since the beginning of this year.

The installation of the Aleis-brand race reader - which can read new-style eartags as sheep run through it - was part of a flurry of activity in livestock marts preparing for the big September rush of sheep from the hills.

It marked a final commitment by Craven Cattle Marts, the Skipton operators, to take a controversially imperfect system on and make it work. And with the Livestock Auctioneers Association taking the same policy line nationally, it looked like the end of farmers' hopes that somebody might yet declare the whole idea a waste of time and cancel it.

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CCM tried and window-shopped various tag-reading systems before deciding on the Aleis, which can read 100 animals in 10 seconds in the space of eight feet - some require 50.

At the cost of a decent car, it was shipped from Australia and unwrapped just in time for its first big test - a sale of 8,000 store lambs, reared in the Dales and looking for lowland farms to take them on for further fattening. In weeks to come, there will be twice as many animals moving through Skipton in a day and even more through Hawes.

Anil John Nayar, from software company Newline ASP, was at Skipton to troubleshoot. His company recommends the Aleis - "the Rolls Royce of race readers" - and had installed them at Longtown, near Carlisle, Penrith and Dumfries, over the previous fortnight.

Not all animals have to be scanned, because some are still exempt from the requirement for full individual records. But there were enough to make Wednesday a good test. Many pens went through with 100 percent detection. But every now and then, the figure on the screen being watched by CCM's office manager, Iris Boyle would be short of the number of actual sheep waiting to go to the ring.

Her assistant, Kelly Armitage, would have to climb in amongst them with a handheld stick reader - the technology the mart has been getting by with so far - and scan all the ears again until the computer system and real life matched up. This is the kind of duplication which feeds criticism of the system. Somebody has to pay for it and although upfront it is CCM, the farmers are well aware that the costs feed through to them in commission on their sales.

Senior auctioneer Ted Ogden said he had seen nothing worse than "teething problems". Most were caused by the variety of tags on the market. Some do not suit the Australian machine. Some have broken. One or two suppliers are already getting a name for both complaints and their names will spread quickly. In this way, Defra believes, the market will work out the best solutions. However, a lot of people wish it had simply specified a national tag design, like Australia - and Scotland.

It was hard to find a farmer with a good word for any of it. And they pointed out that the traceability trail ends at the slaughterhouse, where sheep's heads go one way and carcases another.

Ted Ogden said: "It's true. The paper trail stops there. In future, possibly, full traceability will be required. Meanwhile, the idea is that farmers whould always know what they have on their farms."

But a Welsh visitor, Elfed Jones of Ruthin, commented: "Computerised or not, you are still only getting what somebody says."

There was some consolation for everyone in the auction ring. Prices are terrific this season.