Sunday 29 December 2019

Sky shepherds: The farmers using drones to watch their flocks by flight

For some farmers in New Zealand, Britain and Australia, drones are not just a toy – they’re an increasingly vital tool

A shepherd is out tending a flock when a presence appears above. It descends from the sky and communicates vital information. It may sound like a nativity scene, but for an increasing number of farmers it’s a daily occurrence – and that celestial being is a drone.

Corey Lambeth, a New Zealand farmer, originally purchased a drone for photography, but he quickly realised the device had more practical applications. “I thought ‘I’ll just give it a nudge on the sheep and see what that goes like’ and it actually worked out quite well,” he says. Now, Lambeth has been using a drone “pretty much as another dog” to muster sheep for three years.
Sheep and goats on a meadow in southern Germany. Photograph: Armin Weigel/AFP/Getty Images

New Zealand, where terrain can be rough and mountainous, is “perfect for drone technology … They have this purpose for them,” says Sam Watson, a drone pilot based in Australia.

“It’s a significant time-saving when mustering,” says Jason Rentoul, a farmer based in Marlborough, New Zealand, who has been using drones with herds of sheep, deer and cattle for three years. “Some musters might take four men with a minimum of two dogs each, and now [with a drone] you can do that with two men and considerably less time.”

It took a fair bit of experimentation to get to this point. Rentoul purchased his first drone after watching a video of another farmer using one to muster deer on YouTube. In the early days, he lost drones to water damage and once, memorably, while trying to transport a bottle of wine. He tied the bottle to the drone with fishing line, but it would “swing side to side”. The drone would try and correct for the wine’s movement “and the bottle would swing one way and the drone would try to balance” making the wine swing faster and faster, until he eventually lost control altogether.

“I [now] try and keep it fairly simple and low cost,” he says. Rentoul finds the drone particularly helpful when herding deer. Unlike a sheepdog, a drone can outpace a bolting doe. The drone also works well for cattle with calves, which tend to get aggressive around sheepdogs.

That’s not the only way his dogs have benefited from aerial assistance. “They work together, the dog and drone. It was surprising how quickly the dogs figured it out. At first some of the dogs didn’t like the drone and they’d snap at it and bark at it, but very quickly they realised that the drone was there to help them. When they’re casting out, sometimes they’ll have to run a kilometre through a gully to get to a flock of sheep … and they seem to find the stock quicker because they can hear the drone and know it’ll be working ahead of them.” The dogs will also stand under the drone when they’re feeling threatened by stags or cattle, “that’s their safe place … because the stock won’t come near the drone.”

Lambeth too has learned to innovate. After a period of successful mustering, his flock became habituated to the drone, and ceased to respond to its presence. So he got creative. He recorded audio of his dogs barking, and now plays that sound through the drone. “It’s quite a crack-up seeing the drone flying around, barking at the sheep.”

Wojtek Behnke, an English farmer based in Shropshire, is taking a different approach. Rather than using his drone as a sheep dog, he is treating it like a pied piper.

After watching videos of sheep being herded by drone in New Zealand, Behnke became curious and bought his own. Now, he’s involved in the world’s first “positive association” study using drones, being conducted by Harper Adams University.

Behnke separated a group of five sheep from his flock, and got them used to his drone. Once the sheep were happy, he started creating positive associations. He would hide behind hedges, throwing sheep nuts under the drone’s path. When the sheep had learned that the drone brought them treats, he introduced them back to the flock. “Within a couple of weeks I had all 100 following the drone.”

Now all 300 of Behnke’s sheep can be led by a drone over short distances. “It seems to be quite an enjoyable experience for them. I’ve seen ewes bouncing up like lambs into the air on the videos. They get quite excited about it.”

Behnke believes this can have an impact on the sheep’s quality of life. “We measure ‘a life worth living’ … [by] how many positive experiences they have throughout their lifetime, and how many negative. The more positive, the more their life is worth living. I imagine being chased by dogs and being pushed around is probably less enjoyable than following something around, thinking ‘Oh this is fun, I might get something at the end of it’.”

While drones make great companion tools to use with sheepdogs and other traditional ways of mustering, all the farmers spoken to for this story agree that the biggest advantage of using them is for monitoring. Drones act as an affordable set of eyes in the sky, making checks on stock and crops faster and more detailed – without having to disturb the animals.

Lambeth was particularly thankful for his drone one Christmas Eve. “Me and my partner were sitting out having a barbecue, and we could hear the cows mooing.” Previously, it would have ruined their night “driving out to each individual paddock to figure out where the water leak was”. Instead, “I sent the drone out and I could see their water trough had been knocked over. It only took me 30 minutes.” It was a modern miracle.

(Source: The Guardian)

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