Monitoring Foraging Behaviour of Sheep

Automated monitoring of foraging behaviour in free ranging sheep grazing biodiverse pasture

Project number:                73602

Lead contractor:               Liverpool John Moores University

Other contractors:            Allerton Research and Educational Trust

Start & end date:               31 March 2013 – 30 March 2014

 

The Problem:

There is a movement in beef and sheep farming to enhance and optimise lower input grass based systems.  The pastures used can be rich in biodiversity and the producers may be compensated for enhancing its environmental value.  There is the opportunity to use new technology to understand what the animals are grazing and how we can adapt the grazing strategy to enhance biodiversity while maintaining animal performance.  For example, it has been previously been showned the sheep choose to graze grass with significantly higher sugar content.

 

Aims and Objectives:

  • To evaluate in sheep can be tracked using radio signals
  • To understand if their movements can be integrated into information about the vegetation in the field
  • To test new methods of tracking to ensure a greater range of coverage

 

Approach:

Two MSc students will be used to collect the information, with the EBLEX money topping up stipends from the Perry Foundation.

Ten mature ewes will be used at the Cholderton site in Wiltshire, with eight of them fitted with halters to carry a movement sensor, digital recorder, RFID tag and camera.  The movement sensor data can be used to correctly classify over 96% of target grazing behaviours.  The digital recorder data will be used to record masticatory sounds.  The RFID tag will be used for location.  The camera will obtain digital images of grazed sward.  The sward biodiversity will be assesed using techniques from Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

The ewes will be grazed over the summer, and the data will be analysed.  A final report will be produced, plus an evaluation of how the new technology could be used in other systems.

 

Results:

  • Globally recognised sound descriptors Wiener entropy, amplitude, frequency and pitch could be used to discriminate between foraging events (ryegrass, clover, sugar beet, meadow grass spp. Nettle thistle and fruit tree browse – p<0.0001) – The technology was applicable to sheep of different breeds (Texel, Balwen and Hebridean) and size.
  • RFID technology with inbuilt accelerometer can be used for locating sheep and describing foraging activity – Acoustic data calibrated by video observation can be used to differentiate foraging activity in ewes grazing on a bio-diverse pasture
  • Water soluble carbohydrates in sward did not differ significantly on a diurnal basis in summer pastures indicating that growth and flowering precluded accumulation
  • This technology is now being used on bigger project in Wales on virtual fencing