Ear tagging livestock can be problematic. Debbie Kingsley offers advice

I’m regularly sent sad photos of sheep, lambs, goats and even cows with raggedy torn ears, and people despair, saying ear tagging is compromising the health and welfare of their livestock. “How,” they ask “am I supposed to put a new tag in that torn ear remnant? And how can I tag this year’s youngsters to make sure this doesn’t happen?”

The law requires us to tag, so how can we do our utmost to tag kindly, ensure tags stay in ears and keep them from getting ripped?

The choice of tag is important, as is the design of both the tag and the applicator. You’d think that all tags were made equal, but you only have to throw the topic of tagging into a melee of smallholders to get some very forthright opinions. The same recommendations and ‘steer clear’ comments arise every time, so ask around and listen to what experienced keepers say.

I keep several breeds of sheep and one breed society uses a make of tag which requires an old fashioned applicator. The very act of applying can tear an ear if huge care isn’t taken and the sheep’s head entirely immobilised; if I find any torn ears later on you can also bet it’s from one of these tags.

Some manufacturers regularly update their tags and applicators, so make sure the tags you’ve bought for this year’s lambs are being applied with the correct applicator. If you use an applicator with out-of-date jaws you’ll have no end of trouble inserting the tags, which makes the process unnecessarily stressful for all.

In my experience, small tags are far better for sheep and I’d avoid button tags, which do seem to cause problems. Make sure the male part of the tag is on the inside of the ear so the flat surface is on the outer ear, making it less likely to catch on fencing.

Tagging soon after birth is recommended but with my smaller hill breeds I wait until they are two months old to allow for ear growth.

For goats, with their particularly delicate ears, use two-piece tags or snip the tag into two where it wraps round the ear to minimise catching and tearing. Although my cows do lose tags occasionally, they have never yet ripped their ears.

It’s impossible to stop animals rubbing against a post or inveigling themselves into a tight tangle of blackthorn, but do consider using 8/80/30 stock fencing with its wide spacing so that sheep and goats are unlikely to get their heads stuck.

Key points

Shearwell (www.shearwell.co.uk) offers this advice for tagging lambs:

1. Disinfect the tag and load into the applicator ensuring each end clicks into place

2. Hold the sheep securely

3. Place the tag on the stronger upper edge of the ear, one third from the base and two thirds from the tip. Remember the ear will grow, so let it hang 4 – 5 mm over the edge of the ear or more for larger-eared breeds

4. The point of the tag should go in from the outside of the ear. Once applied, the point will be on the inside of the ear

5. Avoid piercing the ridge of cartilage along the top of the ear, as this can deform the ear and result in infection

6. Avoid tagging during warmer months when fly strike is likely.

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