Earlier this year Royal Mail released a bunch of stamps, wherein the queen’s face is accompanied by a weird looking barcode. When you scan the barcode in their app you, somewhat inexplicably, get shown a video of Shaun the Sheep.

(For reference, the perforation between the Queen’s head and the barcode is fake, so you can’t easily tear them off.)

This will invalidate the majority of stamps you might already own - the standard stamps that are just the Queen’s head won’t be valid after January 2023, although you can apply to swap the current ones for new ones if you like. But the special edition stamps with nice pictures on will still be OK to use.

Whilst badgering you to download an app to repeatedly watch a short novelty video is clearly massive added value worthy of this radical change alone, apparently that’s not the entire goal behind this change. Rather Royal Mail claims that the ability to track letters with barcodes will let it monitor and respond to changes in demand. It’ll also apparently prevent people washing off the postmark ink from stamps and re-selling them for a second use on the black market. I guess that means that barcodes will be tracked and the stamps rejected if used more than once.

I had no idea that re-using stamps was an avenue of fraudulence so prevalent that it costs Royal Mail tens of millions of pounds a year, but apparently so. Re-using stamps is already a crime, for which you can be criminally prosecuted. On the receiver’s end, they don’t get the letter delivered unless they’re willing to pay £1.50 and collect it. Of course that’s only if the crime is detected, but even pre-barcode Royal Mail made efforts in that direction, including apparently checking whether the stamp has lost its phosphor.

There are seemingly some big operations out there. In 2019 Paul and Samantha Harrison were convicted of fraud for having washed the postmark ink off 700,000 used stamps and selling the resulting “usable” stamps online, meaning Royal Mail lost out on a potential £421,000 of revenue.

All that aside, stamp traditionalists are not pleased with the new design. I must admit feeling some aesthetic sympathy for their point of view. And also some solidarity with the Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society, which has below zero interest in digitally engaging with Shaun the Sheep when corresponding with fellow humans. Their founder, Dinah Johnson, worries that it’s the beginning of the end for stamps in general, fearing that in future we’ll just be sticking the boring barcode bit of the setup on envelopes.