- A group of five farmers in the Highlands and Islands have begun the UK's first trial of virtual fencing on large-scale commercial hill herds
- Virtual fencing allows farmers to manage where livestock graze using a smartphone and GPS collars
- There are practical benefits for hill farmers managing extensive areas, crofters managing common grazing, or those using a paddock grazing system
- Research shows that stock learn the system in 24 hours and aren't stressed by it
Virtual fencing has been said to be the next big technology for livestock and hill farmers in Scotland. It allows farmers to manage herd movement through the use of GPS collars, cloud computing, and online software in place of physical fencing.
Farmers “draw” a boundary on their smartphone, and when an animal approaches the boundary their collar gives audio-warning stimuli – followed by a mild electrical pulse if the animal continues. This allows farmers to control where livestock grazes.
Virtual fencing has mainly been trialled on cows in New Zealand, Australia and Norway, but not yet in a large-scale commercial hill herd in the UK.
Management benefits of virtual fencing
Malcolm MacDonald of SAC Consulting, part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), who is facilitating the RISS group, says that there are multiple potential benefits from new virtual fencing technologies for hill farmers and crofters.
It is a practical system for hill farmers to manage extensive areas and for crofters to manage common grazing. It also offers a less time-intensive and labour-intensive means of adopting a paddock-grazing system, or of gathering stock with a slowly moving virtual fence-line.
Mr MacDonald says: “It [virtual fencing] 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.”
Welfare benefits of virtual fencing
Dr Tony Waterhouse, a consultant to the project who specialises in livestock systems in the uplands, says: “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.”
The future of virtual fencing
The closest current options to market are ‘NoFence’ in Norway and ‘e-shepherd’ in Australia and New Zealand, with others under development.
“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,” says MacDonald. “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.”
SAC Consulting have said that if the RISS group trials show potential, they will be applying for further funding to support greater research of virtual fencing technology in practical situations.