Irish exports of lamb have dropped by almost 50pc in the past 10 years which reflects the poor profitability in the sector over that period.
Many mixed dry stock farmers simply increased their suckler herd at the expense of the sheep flock over this period, as the lesser of two evils, regarding profitability.
However, there are hopeful signs, with the buoyancy in breeding sales and the amount of ewe lambs retained for breeding last year, that sheep numbers will increase this year and that we will now have a more vibrant sheep sector.
The implementation of electronic sheep tagging or EID in Ireland is perhaps one of the most confusing, unclear and unnecessary pieces of legislation enacted by the EU Commission and therefore by our Department of Agriculture.
Real confusion exists for Irish sheep farmers who are wondering what type of tags should I order? How do I comply with the legislation? If I buy store lambs, what do I do?
EID in sheep officially came into effect on January 1, 2010, and any sheep retained for breeding born after this date must have an EID tag set. This comprises one mart-type tag in the left ear and one electronic tag in the right ear.
In reality what came into effect on this date was "one ID for life" as in our cattle identification system. Unlike cattle, however, many sheep farmers have hundreds of lambs and adult sheep, which makes the process of recording these numbers individually at sale time a major problem.
The majority of sheep farmers who breed and rear their own lambs and sell the resultant lambs direct for slaughter simply insert a 'slaughter only' or tip-type tag sequentially into the lambs when they are leaving the farm. Farmers simply complete their new dispatch documents as has been the case for the last few years and therefore there is no change.
If the cost of the EID tag was not an issue then we would have a very simple system in that all sheep would be EID tagged and farmers could simply order one tag.
However, this is not the case as EID tags can cost as much as €1.30 and slaughter tags as low as 18c. The permanent or mart tag costs 30c. A valid question is 'what tags do I buy?'
Sheep destined to be sold at a livestock mart or farm-to-farm must be identified with a more robust permanent tag. I want to stress that any farmer can choose at any time to put an EID set of tags in all his/her sheep if they wish, and for some farmers this may well be the simplest system.
Farmers who take this approach have the peace of mind that all their sheep can be sold through any outlet they wish, be bought by any fattener/exporter/breeder and have the knowledge that they are fully compliant with EU regulations and the sheep are properly identified for life.
All sheep destined for export must have an EID set of tags as EU regulations state that all sheep involved in intra community trade must carry EIDs and be traceable back to their holding of birth.
Buyers of store lambs, but especially ewe lambs, may find sheep with full EIDs are a more attractive proposition as they will not have the hassle of recording and correlating the previous owner's numbers or reordering the EID from this herd of origin if they wish to keep some of these animals for breeding.
But I must stress that EID is still optional for lambs born in 2011 and being sold on the open market.
Situations where EID tags are compulsory:
•All breeding sheep born after January 1, 2010 ie breeding hoggets.
•All sheep destined for export to other EU countries whatever their age.
•Good quality ewe lambs destined for breeding.
Situations where EID tags are not required:
•All store or factory fit lambs with a permanent mart tag sold through a mart.
•Lambs destined for immediate slaughter within 12 months of age leaving their herd of origin.
Lambs being retained for breeding and lambs being exported can be retagged and correlated in the flock register, but store lambs being purchased by a fattener for slaughter cannot undergo this procedure as the EU regulation specifically excludes it.
This creates a problem for a large store lamb buyer's perspective. For the smaller finisher he/she can simply record the individual 12 digit tag number from the herd of origin on his/her dispatch document prior to sending for slaughter.
While this may work for the smaller lamb finisher, it would be impractical for the farmer who potentially finishes hundreds or even thousands of animals.