7th March 2013

Pioneering “electronic shepherd” tracker technology to tackle black loss

Pioneering tracker tag technology looks set to play a key role in solving the unexplained disappearance of sheep – known as “black loss” – on hill farms.

The identification of a workable tracking solution for use on hill lambs could herald a major step forward in efforts by industry to better understand this long-standing problem for sheep farmers in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

A two year study by the Highlands & Islands Sheep Health Association, in conjunction with Quality Meat Scotland, ScotEID, SRUC and SAOS, has confirmed the existence of an average of 18.8% annual black loss on four participating hill farms.

Over the period of the study 5,063 lambs were electronically tagged as close as practically possible to birth and their identity recorded and uploaded to the ScotEID sheep database.

The tags on the lambs were read periodically over the summer through to the following winter. Those lambs that had disappeared without trace over the period were recorded as black loss with most of the lambs lost in the first six weeks from birth.

“There are several theories as to where these lambs are going but these are largely anecdotal and unsupported,” said Kathy Peebles, QMS Livestock Development Manager.

“Our on-going research priority is to identify a practical and cost effective technology to track the lambs on the hill over the summer. This will give us a better understanding of what is happening to them.”

Bob Yuill, SAOS Deputy Chief Executive and manager of ScotEID, has recently returned from a trip to China where he met leading researchers in active tag technology in Chengdu, to investigate the potential use of sensors and global positioning working with “active” tags.

“The main benefit of active tags is that they can be monitored remotely to check for changes of movement by the sheep. Any unusual or lack of animal movement recorded by sensors would be interpreted as a sign of illness or death, and black loss,” said Mr Yuill.

The intention going forward, said Mr Yuill, is to consider in-field development of active tags on commercial farms in Scotland, rather than experimental situations.  The research and development work will be conducted in four stages and is likely to take at least two years.

The first step will be to develop the in-field use of active tag technology using wavelengths which can  transmit information in extensive grazing areas with difficult topography. Next, GPS integration with the tags will be developed along with suitable sensor technology, such as 3D accelerometers, to monitor small movements of sheep. It will also be necessary to design and build smart data systems to provide statistical monitoring of sensor feedback with interpretation for farmers to allow the correct response to be taken.

The final stage would be the commercialization of the system.

Kenny Matheson, Chairman of the Highlands & Islands Sheep Health Association (HISHA) said: “The findings of the two year study give increasing cause for concern to the sheep industry.

“Whilst we are still at an early stage, the evidence to date suggests that the black loss issue is something that we must resolve urgently in terms of further research and practical investigation into this serious problem.

“In an industry as fragile as hill sheep farming, such losses are unacceptable and I am calling for further financial assistance to develop a practical solution in association with industry and ScotEID to locate lambs in distress in remote areas as a matter of urgency.”

Sign up for the latest news and views