NoFence in Norway, and e-shepherd in Australia and New Zealand, are the virtual fencing systems closest to market, according to researchers in Scotland who are beginning a trial of such systems on five highland and island hill farms.
We reported here last week on trials being carried out in remote areas in Wales, to investigate if fitting GPS collars on sheep and cattle can improve grazing management, and reduce the chance of livestock theft.
In Scotland, virtual fencing is added to the possibilities, by combining GPS collars with cloud computing and online software, to control where livestock graze.
Virtual fencing is a way of managing herd movement through collars and online software more effectively than with physical fencing.
A boundary is ‘drawn’ on the farmer’s smartphone, and when the animal approaches that boundary, the GPS collar gives an audio-warning, followed by a mild electric shock if the animal continues.
It has been trialled principally on cows in New Zealand, Australia and Norway so far, but not yet in a large-scale commercial hill herd in the UK.
Now, an “on-the-ground” trial is being taken on by a farmer-led group set up by SAC Consulting, part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), with the support of Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) funding.
Malcolm MacDonald of SAC Consulting said, “It [virtual fencing] is in the early stages of adoption in places like New Zealand and Norway, and it makes total sense for making extensive hill grazing in Scotland easier to manage.
“What we want to discover through the trial group is if it’s a practical, affordable solution for hill farmers and crofters in the UK.”
Virtual fencing will make it more practical for hill farmers to manage extensive areas and for crofters to manage commonage grazing.
It also offers a less time and labour intensive means of virtual paddock-grazing, or of gathering stock, with a slowly moving virtual fence-line.
The group will initially be trialling collars from late March.
If these trials show potential, SAC Consulting will apply for further funding to support greater research of virtual fencing in practical situations.
Dr Tony Waterhouse, consultant to the project and specialising in livestock systems particularly in the uplands, said: “This could make a real difference to hard-pressed upland farmers.
Having the capability to quickly find their cattle for normal daily checks, and to graze cattle where physical fence lines are just not practical, have been some of the key priorities for farmers we have spoken to.
This is a sophisticated means of managing their stock with the peace of mind of being able to see it all working on their smartphones.
Research shows that stock learn the system in 24 hours, and are not stressed by it, so overall, from the findings so far, I think the system is also better for animal welfare than wire-based systems.”