Page last updated at 04:58 GMT, Saturday, 14 February 2009

Fears over sheep tagging 'folly'

By Chris Mason
Europe Correspondent, Nations & Regions

Neil Parish MEP
Neil Parish MEP favours a voluntary system for the tagging of sheep

Up to half of England's sheep farmers fear they could be driven out of business by new European rules on the electronic tagging of flocks.

From the 1st January 2010, every sheep born in the European Union will be legally required to have one of the new tags.

A campaign led by a West Country farmer, Neil Parish, who is also a Conservative MEP, aims to change the new regulations - and is already receiving support from across the European Union.

Electronic tagging was first suggested after the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 to ensure sheep movements could be better recorded.

But it is estimated it could cost farmers 1.50 per animal - only slightly less than their market value.

Mr Parish, an MEP for the south west of England, has hosted a special hearing at the European Parliament on the issue - and is being backed by a large number of farming organisations from around Europe.

He has also received the backing of MEPs from all Britain's major political parties as well as German, Irish, Romanian, Polish and French colleagues.

I fear that many older farmers will simply walk away from the hills and mountains where they farm
Neil Parish MEP

"Electronically tagging sheep is not only hugely expensive, but has not been shown to be reliable or to improve animal health and traceability.

"Until the cost becomes more manageable and the systems become more reliable it is sheer folly to continue down the path of forcing every farmer to electronically tag every single sheep," he said.

Instead, he wants the system to be voluntary.

In a letter to the European Commission's Animal Health Commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, which has been seen by the BBC, he goes on: "Many hardworking sheep farmers are amongst the older members of the farming community.

"For them, the compulsory implementation of this scheme will be one regulation too far and I fear that many older farmers will simply walk away from the hills and mountains where they farm."

Tagging 'unnecessary'

The National Farmers Union - which is supporting the campaign - estimates around half of the 80,000 sheep farms across the country could close if the new rules aren't changed.

"There is no need for this," John Mercer from the NFU told me.

"Sheep tagging is already compulsory in the UK. The ears are tagged and they are tracked in batches.

"Putting an electronic tag on every single sheep is simply unnecessary and we will continue to make this case until there is a change."

There are currently more than 30 million sheep in the UK.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) admitted the costs of the new rules outweigh the benefits - and the government is continuing to press hard in Brussels for changes that will help to reduce the burden on the industry.

As a result of the negotiations, the Farming Minister Jane Kennedy has confirmed farmers in England will not now have to electronically tag sheep intended for slaughter before they are 12 months old when the new rules come into force.

As a devolved issue it is the responsibility of ministers in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast to negotiate on behalf of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The European Commission confirmed to the BBC that the regulation was adopted in 2003 and was due to come into force at the beginning of 2008.

However, it was delayed for two years because of concerns raised by Britain and others - but is due to become legally binding at the beginning of 2010.

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