Technology improves shepherding and aids in animal welfare

  • 08 October 2021
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In light of this, a team of researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia is investigating the use of drone technology in shepherding as an alternative to the traditional method of using working dogs.

One of the lead researchers, Kate Yaxley, says that although many farmers these use drones to herd sheep, there haven’t been many insights into how the sheep are interacting with the drone technology or what impact the technology has on their welfare. To answer this question, they strapped on heart rate monitors to sheep to find out.

More about the research project

Heart rate is a generally accepted indicator of stress in sheep.

While the resting heart rate of the animal is around 80 beats per minute, when sheep are being vigorously driven, it’s common to see the heart rate go up to around 163 beats per minute on average. However, when alerted to the presence of working dogs, a sheep’s heart rate can skyrocket up to 262 beats per minute as well.

And what about drones? When a loudspeaker-equipped drone initiates a sheep drive with the sound of a dog bark, flying at a height of 10 meters and at a 25 km/h, the heart rate of the animals averages around 164 beats per minute.

Through this study, the researchers found that the sheep had higher heart rates when they’re being shepherded by traditional means, indicating that the simple act of moving them to another paddock for food is actually putting the animals under severe stress.

According to Yaxley, by measuring the variations in heart rates they found it to be much lower when using drones with appropriate approach speed, and that the animals actually responded to the technology. When the researchers played certain sounds that allowed the sheep to use their aural and visual acuity, they moved a lot easier.

“It’s all about promoting a positive relationship between the farmer, the technology that is available to them, and the welfare of the animals. We want to empower farmers to work in different ways, while maintaining social responsibility towards animal welfare and ethics”, explains Yaxley.

This research project is part of a longer-term vision to see human and artificial intelligence working together to foster the welfare of farms. And so, Yaxley and her team will now be shifting their focus to the frequency of the sounds emitted by a shepherding drone as opposed to trying to emit a particular sound.