Conservation Grazing: Virtual Fencing Trials
Various strategies to limit cattle movement either in or out of a specific land area have evolved over the years from human supervision to wood, stone, and wire and electric fences; and now the virtual fence is a reality! The concept involves remote mapping, GPS sensors and wireless technologies to keep animals in certain areas and out of others. The animals have a GPS collar fitted and the perimeter of the grazing area is defined by geo-coordinates, which can be drawn on a phone or tablet screen using the associated app. As an animal approaches the pre- virtual perimeter, the GPS collar emits an audio cue. As the animal progresses, the audio warning will increase, and if they persist, the animal will receive an electrical pulse as they cross the perimeter fence coordinates. This is the learning/ training process for the animal, i.e. the link of the audible cue(s) to the electric pulse, such that once they experiences the audible cue, the animal would be deterred from continuing to/ through the perimeter. The development and uptake of this device has been slow up to recent times due to the challenging nature of the technology. However, there is now significant interest in virtual fencing (VF) systems for controlling grazing management and animal movement, including here in Ireland.
Since summer 2020, the Agri-Ecology Unit of National Parks & Wildlife Service and three farmers have been progressing Ireland’s first virtual fencing studies on commercial farms, assisted by Teagasc, IT Sligo and Michael Martyn Agri-Environmental Consultants. These conservation grazing trials using innovative technologies are being undertaken on three farms participating in the NPWS Farm Plan Scheme (ffn-ebook-complete.pdf (npws.ie). Rigorous, real time animal behaviour monitoring will be in place over the three years of the study, while habitat condition and farmer feedback will also be evaluated. The trials are being undertaken on upland scenarios, with a view to managing important habitats and safeguarding peat soils, which in turn are important for carbon, water and biodiversity. It is hoped that if proven successful, this could herald a new era and opportunities for the management of these important sites and other areas of environmental interest. There will likely be other wide-ranging uses for the technology elsewhere, but these initial steps are vital to inform the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in an Irish farming context. One of the primary objectives of the team is to provide a feasibility study, to break new ground for other parties who may be interested in adopting this cutting-edge approach. There is a lot to learn and the technology should not be considered as a gadget to be used out of the box, without very careful consideration and planning.
It is absolutely necessary that assurance can be given that this technology is consistent with animal welfare principles and codes of practice. Stringent animal welfare regulations must be satisfied. It is crucially important that this technology is deployed and tested within a research framework with ethical approval and guidelines together with appropriate monitoring of the technology and animal behaviour over time. By doing so, this project will provide real-life scenario testing in an Irish context to inform the approach for future roll-out. Apart from environmental management, envisaged benefits of VF include improved life-style of livestock managers due to a reduced requirement for manual labour (time and effort) and peace of mind knowing where animals are at any time. This is particularly the case in upland and difficult terrain, thereby hopefully adding to the security and safety of the animals.
In summary, this virtual fence concept is now being pioneered by this research group in Ireland, with a view to evaluating:
- effectiveness in maintaining cattle location as desired;
- applicability in delivering quality environmental goods, including biodiversity, water, and soils;
- how it works for the animals;
- how it works for the farmers.
We are particularly happy to be working with three very progressive farmers in different parts of Ireland as part of this work.
The group will provide a detailed report after the three years of study, but will continue to provide updates as relevant and useful as this is an emerging and innovative approach to farming in the 21st century.
Correspondence: Barry O’Donoghue (Agri.Ecology@housing.gov.ie)