Tuesday 25 October 2016

'Electric' sheep used to test how hedges can protect flocks from weather

Published 01/09/2016 | 13:01

The 'sheep' are being used in North Wales (Laurence Clark/Woodland Trust/PA Wire)
The 'sheep' are being used in North Wales (Laurence Clark/Woodland Trust/PA Wire)

"Electric" sheep are being used to discover the weather conditions real animals dream of - and whether trees and hedges can help provide them.

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Two ewes, complete with thick fleeces, ear tags and woolly tails - and hi-tech fittings - have been stationed in fields in North Wales as part of a study to see how to improve welfare and productivity of flocks.

The "electric" sheep have a battery-operated heating system which stimulates the heat produced by a live animal.

By measuring the difference between internal and external temperature, researchers can work out how much energy the sheep loses by dealing with the weather.

They are being used to simulate how real flocks respond to weather conditions and the effectiveness of trees and "shelter belts" of rows of trees or shrubs in protecting them.

PhD student Pip Jones is taking the model ewes' temperatures as she moves them around the fields of Bangor University's research farm, comparing places where trees, hedgerows and shelter belts are grown with areas where there is no shelter.

The research is already revealing the impact of weather on the fleecy machines.

Ms Jones said: "We're looking at how weather is experienced on a 'sheep scale' and although its early day I've been really surprised by some measurements.

"Sheep use a substantial amount of energy just staying warm, and lose a lot of heat when it's cool, especially when there's a wind chill.

"On a hot day when the weather was around 30C (86F) at the study site, we put a model sheep in the direct sun, and the fleece recorded a temperature of 60C (140F) which is incredibly hot.

"This is where the shelter of trees could really contribute, creating shade in the summer and reducing the effects of wind chill in winter."

Dr Andy Smith, senior lecturer in forestry at Bangor University said: "If it's very cold a sheep burns more energy to keep warm for survival and it needs more food.

"Conversely if it's too hot, animals tend to eat less and seek shade to keep cool. Both situations affect weight gain and productivity because energy that could go into growth is used to regulate metabolism instead."

In outdoor lambing, shelter could reduce the risk of hypothermia for young lambs and mastitis in ewes, and planting trees could improve drainage and fence sheep off from wet areas where fluke parasites thrive.

The aim of the study, which is part of a research partnership to increase farm profitability and efficiency through sustainable agriculture, is to produce a tool kit for farmers to show them the best places to plant for effective shelter and shade.

It is being funded in partnership with the Woodland Trust, whose senior farming adviser Helen Chesshire said the organisation could provide subsidised trees, on-farm assessments and bespoke planting schemes.

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