Virtual Fencing, a Conservation Graze-Changer?
By Kelly Hunt, Assistant Ranger, Stour Valley
Rewilding seems to be a buzz word for conservationists at the moment, for those in favour and those against. However, the benefits of landscape scale management and connectivity of habitats that are resulting from rewilding seem to be common ambitions for conservation organisations abandoning the traditional intensive habitat management to maintain populations of less abundance species in increasingly isolated pockets. Projects such as the Tauros genetic manipulation and introduction project by Rewilding Europe are working towards having large roaming grazers as part of their habitat restoration and connection. However, globally conflict has continuously arisen between humans and wildlife on boundaries between the two, especially as both groups are battling for space and resources.
Virtual Fencing collars, only currently imported to the UK by Nofence, could provide precision control over grazing patterns while simultaneously reducing staff labour requirements. Thus this could be a key tool to reducing human-wildlife conflicts and making replication of free-roaming large grazers to obtain heterogeneity achievable. There are currently approximately 4,000 collars in use in the UK having become increasingly popular over the last four years on goats, sheep, and cattle.
The flexibility in grazing rotations provided by these collars and the often smaller herds of livestock in conservation contexts makes the initial investment in the technology affordable and means they are primarily used by conservation organisations such as the National Trust in the UK1.
The collars register virtual paddocks dictated by the handler on the Nofence app via the 2G and 4G mobile network. GPS location of all collars is communicated to the Nofence platform every 15 minutes via satellites.
Initially the collars work using Operant Conditioning, a simple negative stimuli is associated with a neutral stimuli to reduce an undesirable behavioural response. As the animal fitted with the collar approaches a virtual boundary of a paddock the collar is assigned to, the collar will emit an auditory tone. As the individual continues in its trajectory over the boundary the frequency of the tone increases at a volume of 82dB (a standard conversation sits at approximately 60dB). After a further ~6 metres a single electric shock is delivered and a notification is sent to any devices logged onto the app. If they continue on their path out of the virtual paddock, the ‘audity-shock pattern’ repeats 2 more times, at which point a safety mechanism prevents any more shocks and an ‘escaped animal’ notification is sent to the app. The GPS tracking feature can then be used to collect the escapee.
If the animal turns back to the virtual paddock the sound cue stops and no shock is given, thus the animal associates an electric shock with the sound cue, and by turning around when hearing the noise they can avoid it.
The Trial: Could Virtual Fencing help bring Baa-ck rare breeds in a conservation context?
The collars were placed on 6 sheep during their time grazing some small paddocks of wet grassland along the River Stour. Having trialled the collars over 42 days, the sheep were moved through 4 different virtual paddock setups with increasing complexity in shape and an increase in the number of exclusion zones.
If the sheep did not successfully learn how to navigate the virtual paddocks using just the auditory cues and avoiding the negative stimulus, there would be a 1:1 ratio of shocks and pulses. Over the 42 days there were a total of 61 electric shocks delivered to the flock. Over 50% of these were within the first two days and no shocks were given to any individuals throughout the last two weeks of the trial. A total of 994 audio cues were given to the flock over the same period. Therefore, 6% of the virtual boundary challenges by the sheep resulted in an electric shock, the majority of which occurred in the first two days during the training period. Therefore the rate of learning by the sheep was much quicker than predicted.
Heatmaps of animal movements, locations and times of sound and electric stimuli given, and activity levels of individuals can be obtained from the Nofence app and the nofence.no platform.
By the end of the trial, the sheep were successfully grazing in paddocks with incomplete physical fencing or a lack of fencing all together, relying completely on the virtual fencing to keep the sheep out of the river and its riparian area.
During discussions with land managers, the concern of public opinion around the use of electric shocks for animal training, especially following the banning of electric dog collars in Wales and largely frowned upon in England and Scotland, was repeatedly mentioned and seemed a significant barrier to introducing the technology despite potential significant benefits to management of the habitats.
80 visitors to the Stour Valley Nature Reserve were interviewed and an explanation of the technology was given. Each participant was asked a range of questions to gauge their ethical views of the use of this technology and the use of electric shocks for training of the livestock.
Although some respondents were against the use of electric shocks, more than half did understand the practical use of electric fencing in general. The majority of those interviewed saw a greater benefit of the Nofence technology compared to a standard electric fence often used in agricultural settings. Examples of benefits given included; a single pulse administered by the collars compared to a current given by the fence, the design of the collars’ technology preventing misuse or treatment by the handler towards the livestock, and the absence of barbed wire or electric fencing for animals to get tangled in and give the opportunity to escape predators.
Due to land managers’ concerns of public perception, it was stated that they often adapted their language depending on the demographic they are speaking to. To determine the impacts of the terms used to describe the technology, 40 members of the public were given the explanation and questionnaire using the word ‘shock’ to describe the negative stimuli given, while 40 experienced the word ‘pulse’.
Surprisingly, there was no difference in the answers given by the members of the public in relation to their ethical opinions of livestock receiving electric shocks, preferred fencing types used on reserves, or acceptable strengths of electric stimuli given between the two groups. When asked what term was most accurate and which they would like to be used, each group preferred the term used within their own survey, either buzz or shock.
The background knowledge of the members of the public of conservation or agricultural topics had a greater influence on the responses given to questions.
Land Manager Surveys
Over 60% of conservation land managers surveyed had habitats on their reserves they wanted to graze but could not due to conflicts with right of way access, protected status of the land (e.g. protected scheduled ancient monument), and where it was impractical to install physical fencing. With the assistance of Nofence technology, four of these would be able to graze those habitats.
All of the Nofence users would recommend the use of virtual fencing to other land managers looking to introduce or expand their livestock grazing. The flexibility and reduced staff labour requirements were the greatest advantages, significantly aiding in control of grazing rotations, exclusion of grazing of rare or toxic plants, and the monetary and resource saving in fencing maintenance.
Reserve managers also found a benefit in placing QR codes provided by the Nofence app, which when scanned on entrance notice boards by the public will produce a visual map of the current virtual paddock and how to avoid the livestock if they desire. The greatest common challenges were the initial monetary investment and issues with efficiency if the local 2G and 4G mobile networks were unstable which led to delays in registering collars to new paddocks.
The strength of Nofence collars are approximately 1/6th the strength of a standard electric fence used for livestock. Many livestock managers having seen the effectiveness of the collars at a fraction of the stimulus strength and therefore promote the ethical advantages of using the collars, now stating standard agricultural electric fencing as excessive.
The flexibility and intricate control of grazing provided by virtual fencing technology can provide an invaluable tool to aid conservation land managers in introducing conservation grazing to their reserves to reduce the burden on staff and budgets by reducing machinery use but also to reduce conflicts with members of the public.
These collars could prevent conflicts such as livestock collisions with cars in areas utilised by commoners such as in the New Forest. This concept could be further developed to aid in reintroduction efforts of more primitive ruminants such as bison or Asian buffalo, using virtual boundaries to keep them from damaging local properties, avoid roads, and they can be tracked for population control and welfare checks.
Thanks to Tony Waterhouse from SRUC and Synne Foss Budal from Nofence for their support with this research.
1 The National Trust (2021) Cattle grazing returns to Studland Heath. Available at: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/studland-bay/features/cattle-grazing-returns-to-studland-heath. [Accessed 25/06/2021].
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