‘Electronic shepherd’ study for hill farmers

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TRACKING sheep by GPS could become a reality if researchers can work out a commercial way to use the technology.

Pioneering “electronic shepherd” tracker tags would be used in a bid to cut the unexplained disappearance of sheep referred to as “black loss”.

A two-year study on four hill farms in the Highlands found an average of nearly 20 per cent annual black loss last year.

Those involved in the study – Highlands and Islands Sheep Health Association, marketing body Quality Meat Scotland, electronic ear tagging researchers ScotEID, Scotland’s rural college SRUC and farming co-op advisors SAOS – are going to look at developing satellite tags for use commercially.

For the Highland research 5,063 lambs were electronically tagged in spring 2011, as soon as practical after birth, and monitored over the summer and following winter.

Lambs that disappeared without trace were recorded as black loss with most going missing in the first six weeks from birth.

QMS’s livestock development manager Kathy Peebles said: “Our on-going research priority is to identify a practical and cost effective technology to track the lambs on the hill over the summer. This will give us a better understanding of what is happening to them.”

Immediate past chairman of the National Sheep Association of Scotland, Jimmy Sinclair of Crookston, Heriot said there could be a use for tracking technology on Border hill farms. But he raised concerns about cost and practicality.

He said: “We are well aware, and I know from personal experience, there is definitely a problem with black loss. I don’t feel we should be pouring cold water on this but we have got to have some realism.”

He feared sheep could need a collar rather than a tag and noted satellite tags tracking sea eagles cost £2,500 each.

He explained: “The tag might be worth more than some of the lambs. I just don’t think it would work in a pure hill situation. It could be very difficult to implement and I think the cost would outstrip the benefits.”

Former Sheep Farmer of the Year, David Mactaggart of Hallrule, Bonchester Bridge said: “It would help in the southern uplands and Cheviots but probably not on in bye farms. I can fully understand what the problem is and it will be interesting to watch this space.”

ScotEID manager and deputy chief executive of SAOS, Bob Yuill have met leading researchers in active tag technology in Chengdu, China, to look at the potential use of sensors and global positioning working with “active” tags.

He said: “The main benefit of active tags is that they can be monitored remotely to check for changes of movement by the sheep. Any unusual or lack of animal movement recorded by sensors would be interpreted as a sign of illness or death, and black loss.”

The development work is expected to take two years and will be conducted in four stages, said QMS.

A spokesman said: “The first step will be to develop the in-field use of active tag technology using wavelengths which can transmit information in extensive grazing areas with difficult topography.

“Next, GPS integration with the tags will be developed along with suitable sensor technology, such as 3D accelerometers, to monitor small movements of sheep.

“It will also be necessary to design and build smart data systems to provide statistical monitoring of sensor feedback with interpretation for farmers to allow the correct response to be taken.”

The final stage would be commercialising the system.