Eartags are the bane of our life here; it seems our cows lose them for fun. We find them hung in hedges, leaving just a hole where they once sat in their teddy-bear ears. Which is a bit of a pain since, legally, all cattle in the UK have to have 2 tags, so we seem to be constantly replacing them.
Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, it’s probably more like a handful a year, but it does feel never-ending sometimes. And their ears are so fluffy, you have to hunt to find the tags in the first place; which has led to ones being marked down as missing, only for it to miraculously reappear when you get up close!
Tags are really important though. They’re basically earrings that contain an animal’s unique identification number, so they can be fully traceable from birth. Cows even have their own passports, connected to the number on their eartag, that follows them from place to place, recording every single movement!
In the UK, calves have to have both their tags fitted within a set number of days from birth, and all have to be registered for their passports before they’re 27 days old.
What’s on the tags?
- The number on the tag begins with letters, the country code– so ours is UK.
- Nect is the herd mark– a number specific to each farm, so all the cattle born to each herd will have that number on their tags.
- And after that, there’s the animal’s individual, 6-digit number.
- The first of the 6 numbers is the ‘check digit’, it goes up from 1 to 7, then repeats.
- Then, the next 5 digits are their number. So, for the first ever calf born to a herd, their number might be 100001.
A cow’s full tag might read- UK 123456 100001
Sheep and goats also have to have eartags, they are given one or two tags within a set number of months from birth, or before they’re moved off the holding they were born on, whichever’s sooner. Their tags are also EIDs (electronic identifiers), which means they contain a chip that can be read electronically. Their tag, like cows’, includes the individual flock or herd mark.
Pigs can be identified with either an eartag, a tattoo on their ear, or something called slap marks on their sides, where they’re stamped with permanent ink. Again, the numbers used is their herd mark, so they can be traced back to the farm they were born on.
Every piece of British beef, pork or lamb sold can be traced back to the farm it was produced on because of our tagging and identification system- which is pretty amazing, isn’t it!?
Other Forms of Identification
Before sheep had to have eartags, farmers already had a way of identifying who each flock belonged to, so wandering sheep could be returned. The methods had been around for hundreds of years and are still used today on many hill farms, like the hefted flocks we covered yesterday, where there’s a lot of surrounding sheep for escapees and ones who roam too far to get mixed up with.
They’re called Smit Marks and Lug Marks.
Lug marks are small notches clipped into sheep’s ears at an early age, in a set pattern that identifies the owner.
And if you’ve ever looked at a flock of sheep and wondered why they all had the same, coloured marks on their fleece, then you’ve seen a smit mark. They’re paint marks, a mixture of lines and spots in specific places on the sheep, that identifies who they belong to.
Lug marks and smit marks for the farms are recorded in books that date back hundreds of years, starting with the Shepherd’s Guide that was published in 1817! So, traceability certainly isn’t a new thing!