A group of farmers in Scotland are set to begin trialling virtual fencing, pitched as a way of managing herd movement through collars and online software more effectively than with physical fencing.
Set up by SAC Consulting, part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) with the support of Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) funding, the group will initially be trialling the collars from late March.
The technology, which has been researched by SRUC, involves a combination of GPS collars, cloud computing and online software to control where livestock grazes.
A boundary is ‘drawn’ on the farmer’s smartphone and when the animal approaches that boundary the GPS collar gives audio-warning stimuli, followed by a mild electric pulse 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.
Malcolm MacDonald of SAC Consulting, who is co-ordinating the trial group of five highland and island hill farmers and crofters, said that while a lot of research had been undertaken into virtual fencing in the last 20 years, it had yet to be proven for commercial use.
Mr MacDonald 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.
“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.”
SAC Consulting have said that if these trials show potential, it will be applying for further funding to support greater research of virtual fencing technology in practical situations.
The RISS project has already undertaken research into virtual fencing, including that by SRUC, over the last 15 years.
Dr Tony Waterhouse, consultant to the project and specialising in livestock systems particularly in the uplands, said: “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.”