A new virtual fencing system is being explored by a Scottish farmers group, set up by SAC Consulting, which could manage herd movement using GPS and cloud technology.
A farmer would use their mobile phone to ‘draw’ a virtual boundary, and a GPS collar worn by the grazing animals would use cloud data to send a signal when the cows are leaving the designated area, providing audible stimuli and a small electric pulse as deterrents.
The technology has been trialled in New Zealand, Australia and Norway, but has yet to be used in large scale UK hill herding.
Hill farmers have herds grazing over large areas with little physical barriers due to terrain formation and size of land area. The virtual fences remove this obstacle by allowing farmers to effectively ‘place’ their virtual fencing anywhere, making it more practical for hill farmers to manage extensive areas and for crofters to manage common grazing.
Malcolm MacDonald of SAC Consulting commented: “It’s 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.
“It saves time and labour, can protect environmentally sensitive areas and improves herd management as farmers can monitor their stock from their smartphone or tablet.
“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.
“If there is an appetite for this technology, our farmers as a group – and others interested – will have greater buying power to make it a more affordable solution for their businesses.”
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The farmers group plans to begin trialling collars from late March, with the intention of applying for further funding for more research into the technology in practical situations if they prove successful.
Dr Tony Waterhouse, consultant to the project and specialist in livestock systems, said: “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 learns the system in 24 hours and is 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.”