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Do Android Farmers Dream of Electric Sheep?

Robot Sheep Need Shelter Too

New research shows sheep are more likely to survive windy, cold winters and scorching summer days if they are provided with shelter in the form of trees, shrubs and hedgerows.

As part of a study partially funded by the Woodland Trust, scientists at Bangor University have created robotic sheep fitted with sophisticated electronics that measure the energy it takes to maintain their body temperature in different conditions.

One such simulation compared thermal stress risk to livestock in an upland field and revealed the probability of animals experiencing potentially fatal wind chill temperature fell by more than 20 per cent if they had shelter.

thermal imaging on sheep

Early findings have also revealed that if sheep can maintain a comfortable temperature through the use of shelterbelts, then more of their energy they can be allocated to production.

PhD student Pip Jones  has been recording the electric ewes’ energy consumption as she moves them around the fields at Bangor University’s research farm; comparing what happens in places where trees, hedgerows or shelter belts offer protection against locations where there’s no shelter.

By measuring the power consumed by the robotic sheep to maintain their internal temperature in different conditions, researchers can work out how much energy the sheep loses just trying to deal with the weather. So far the team has worked out that over the three months of winter, if it averaged a chilly 6 °C outside, this would increase the energy deficit by nearly 0.25 megajoules per sheep, per day. This means that 100 sheep would need an extra 189kg of dry matter silage, just to produce the energy they need to keep warm, energy that is therefore not available for growth. 

Trees have many benefits trees on flock health. Tree shelter is invaluable in cold, wet and windy conditions, reducing the risk of hypothermia in new born lambs and the risk of mastitis in their mothers.   Cold, exposed and windy conditions can lead to an increased risk of ewes developing acute mastitis. This reduces the ability of the ewe to support her lambs, increasing the likelihood of lamb mortality or poor growth rates.

sheep in a field

Shelterbelts can also be designed to assist natural behaviours of ewes and provide opportunities for isolation during lambing. Isolation increases the chances of early development of a strong bond between the ewe and her lambs, better suckling and colostrum intake, reduced disease risk and greater resistance to the cold. And of course, trees are great for providing summer shade, allowing the sheep to seek respite from the sun.

Trees can also improve soil quality, reducing waterlogged ground conditions associated with causing lameness and liver fluke.


 farmers in a field