The practice of marking sheep by cutting notches into their ears may soon become optional in Iceland, Bændablaðið reports. Earmarking sheep and goats is required by law in Iceland, though most Icelandic sheep are now also tagged with plastic or metal plates on their ears. The legislative change is proposed on the basis of animal welfare as well as the efficiency of more modern methods such as tagging.
An old tradition to mark ownership
The tradition of earmarking livestock is not unique to Iceland. It is practised across the Nordic region and the Shetland Islands, and most likely arrived in Iceland with the earliest settlers. Notching sheep ears with distinctive patterns was historically done to mark their ownership, an important practice wherever sheep are released in the summer to roam freely and mix with animals from other farms, as has been done in Iceland since the island’s settlement.
Today most Icelandic sheep are also marked with plastic or metal ear tags that are printed with the designated numbers of their farm, owner, and locality, as well as a symbol identifying their county and individual livestock number. A bill currently under review by the Icelandic Parliament proposes making this tagging system mandatory and making earmarking optional, as the “age-old method of safeguarding animal ownership is no longer needed.”
Unlikely that sheep farmers will stop earmarking
Unnsteinn Snorri Snorrason, CEO of the National Association of Sheep Farmers (Landssamtök sauðfjárbænda), says that the Association is not opposed to the change, though he doubts that farmers will stop using earmarks. Unlike tags, Unnsteinn says, earmarks allow farmers to identify sheep from a distance, though even newer methods such as microchipping could provide other advantages when it comes to identifying and herding sheep. “Earmarks are handy where sheep are kept on common land or where farmers have adjacent pastureland,” says Unnsteinn, though they are less important where sheep are kept on private land.
“The flaw with stopping earmarking and when ears are whole is that then anyone could cut off a tag and replace it with their own and claim the sheep. Farmers must therefore decide for themselves whether they want to keep marking and thus ensure their ownership or exclusively use tags. There are also farmers that don’t want to earmark their sheep based on animal welfare views.”
Dr. Ólafur R. Dýrmundsson, editor of the National Earmarks Register (Landsmarkaskrá) says the reasoning behind the proposed change is not well supported. “A secure labelling system for sheep in Iceland has now gained greater weight, with regard to the safety of both animal feed and food. This is partly because many sheep disease prevention lines have been scrapped or their maintenance has been neglected in recent years.”