Baby ear tags for Soay lambs: where to get them and why

February 2014 update: Dalton no longer sells Supersmall ear tags, alas! We have had such excellent experience with Supersmalls that we put in one final big order from their warehouse stock, enough to last us for several years. If you have used Supersmalls in the past and need more, you might check with Dalton to see if they still have a few boxes tucked away some where.

Those of you who follow this blog or spend time on the main part of our farm website are familiar with pictures of sheep with little green ear tags — our lambs.

Soay lambs with baby ear tags

Curious Saltmarsh Soay lambs sport green ear tags from day one

All of our lambs sport these cute little tags from Day 1.  The lambs pictured here are small enough that they almost certainly will find their way back to their mothers when they get hungry.  But imagine if they were weaned at this point and had no tags.  Unless the grey lamb with black legs were our only black-legged lamb, we would have no idea who she was [Note:  you can tell she’s a ewe because her baby tag goes in her right ear; her adult tag will go in her left ear].  Similarly, as long as the gorgeous little tan ewe on the left is our only light phase ewe lamb, we can figure out who she is without an ear tag.  But throw in another light phase ewe lamb and who knows?

Twin Soay lambs need eartags to tell them apart

Twins Coltishall & Comer: only their eartags know for sure

Why do we incur the additional cost of baby tags, and not simply rely on adult scrapie tags to identify our sheep?  There are several reasons.  For starters, the adult tags are too heavy to put in a Soay lamb’s ears until the animal is at least 8, and preferably 10-12, weeks old, but identification issues can start as early as birth.  We have a high rate of twinning in our British Soay flock — close to 50% in each of the last two years.  The twins often look identical, and baby tags are the only way to tell them apart.

Soay lambs without their moms beside them look a lot alike

Who’s who in the barnyard? Eartags help!

Much as we love to brag about the strong bonds between Soay mothers and their lambs, and even though we keep each ewe and lamb isolated in a jug for 2 or 3 days, once they are out of the jug there will be an occasional lamb who wanders off and before long tries to poach a meal from another ewe.  If all the lambs have ear tags within the first few hours after birth, and then a lamb gets separated from its mother, the odds of sorting out who’s who and getting the lamb back where it belongs in time to prevent rejection are much higher.

Look-alike Soay twins need tags

Even when they’re with their mom, Soay twins sometimes are hard to tell apart without tags

For anyone with more than 2 or 3 lambs, even keeping them sorted out when rounding up the lambs for working them — weighing their progress, giving them their first and second baby tetanus boosters — gets iffy if they do not have tags.  If you separate the lambs briefly from their mothers in order to work the lambs, you may not know which lamb is which without tags.  If you round up the ewes and lambs together in a small enough area to catch them without stress, there is a good chance the lambs will not be right next to their mothers and you’ll have the same identification issues.

Mismatched lambs and mothers, no matter when or how it happens, means the lamb is basically without identification and cannot ethically be registered or sold as a Soay sheep with known parentage — its pedigree.  Not a good situation, but easily remedied with tags.

Dalton Minitag

Dalton Minitag

Dalton Minis are little bitty tags engineered specifically for rabbits. The Minis are only 20mm long (about 3/4 inch, 5mm high  (just under 1/4 inch), and weigh almost nothing. (photos courtesy of Dalton, all brand names either Dalton copyright or Dalton trademark):

For several years, the only problem we had with our Minis was that we ordered a big supply with gold lettering on green tags and our aging eyes could not read the numbers except up really close. Plus the lambs are not thrilled about being rounded up every time we cannot read their tag numbers. Our fault, and easily solved by ordering black lettering next time around.

Soay twins stay close to mom

Which twin is which?

Along about 2010, for the first time we had two or three Minis fall out. We are not sure why this happened, but our working hypothesis is that the lambs developed mild ear infections from some microscopic beastie in the pasture, or the posts are just a smidgen too short for our bigger, more robust lambs these days. Although we have lots of adult Soay who have successfully worn their Minis for years, it is the case that the  miniature tags are a very snug fit even in the lambs’ ears, and it is difficult to rotate them to prevent binding. For whatever reason the infections happened and once the ear lobe was infected the ear tag hole got big enough for the tiny tag to fall right through. Even though the Minis are light enough for our little lambs’ ears, they may be a bit too small for even our diminutive sheep.

Dalton Temptag

Dalton Temptag

Dalton makes two other products my resident researcher thought might work better and our consultants at Dalton recommended. The Temptag is fitted by hand (just pinch and it locks) and is 30mm long and 10mm wide.  We were temp-ted (sorry, couldn’t resist) to try it, but ultimately decided that its temporary characteristic, which large-scale commercial breeders apparently prefer, was not what we wanted, given the occasional loss of an adult tag later on — redundancy is just plain useful.  And we are skeptical about anything that creates a loop in our lambs’ ears: too many places for the loop to get caught and tear.

Dalton Supersmall

Dalton Supersmall

We ultimately decided to go with a third Dalton product, their Supersmall, for the first time this year.  It is quite a bit longer, 32 mm, than the Mini and just a bit wider, 8mm, but still weighs almost nothing.  We know it will fit more freely in our robust lambs’ ears as babies and as adults, and we are hoping this will eliminate infections.  What we do not know is whether the “play” in the post will result in the tags getting caught more often.  If nothing else, the lettering will be larger and also black, a big plus for us. 

As of this writing, Dalton tags still cannot be ordered online here in the U.S., but ordering them by email is as straightforward as using an online distributor.  We suggest you start by going to the main Dalton website in the U.K.  Look through their catalog to decide what tag you want, in what color and with what lettering.  Then you simply send an email to info @ dalton and tell them what you want. We have had terrific service from whoever is managing overseas customers at the time. They will help you confirm what applicator you need to order, give you instructions for your payment options (including PayPal), and when to expect your shipment.  Note:  I purposely spread out the email address in hopes of thwarting spam “harvesters.”  Just leave out all the spaces and you’ll be fine.

We order baby tag numbers (SMR001, SMR002, SMR003) with our farm initials and unique 3-digit numbers to match the number series on our USDA Scrapie adult tags — OR119 001, OR119 002, OR119 003 — so that our animals each have only one unique number. It seems to us that having two different numbering systems, and thus two different numbers on each sheep, is just asking for confusion. Dalton will make your tags with whatever numbering system you ask for. We prefer having numbers on both sides, especially helpful in identifying what lambs or adults are in what photos.

What about other brands, including small tags available here in the U.S.?  Our first lambing year, before we knew about Dalton, we used the metal small animal tags Steve was familiar with from his lab years, but they are notorious for ripping out and causing all sorts of havoc with baby lambs’ ears. Other than our problem with gold lettering and our curiosity about an even better  “fit,” we like Dalton so much we see no reason to switch brands. But … we have heard rumors that at least one company in the U.S. now sells plastic tags small enough for newborn Soay lambs. Premier advertises a 1″ x 1″ tag, not too long but way too wide for Soay lambs and probably too heavy. A second Premier product has the same general shape (narrow) as the Dalton Supersmall but the Premier version is a full 1 and 1/2 inches long — too long for Soay, we fear, and also probably too heavy. Allflex’s smallest tag is 2″ long and over an inch and a half wide.  But … we have not tried these products nor have we made an exhaustive search for other tags. If you have had experience with a good brand that is small enough and light enough for Soay lamb ears, please send back a comment and let us know.  We are always open to new suggestions. Until then, we eagerly await the arrival of the first lamb to sport its green, black-lettered, Supersmall eartag!

For now …

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