Four Rothiemurchus cows are learning to associate the sound of music with a virtual fence to help improve the health of the forest.
The forest and the animals and plants that call the forest home evolved in a time when animals such as aurochs grazed the forest floor. Through most of the last millenium cattle lightly grazed the forest. However this system broke down when cattlemen accompanying cattle in the forest became uneconomic, leaving deer and hares as the grazers of the forest. In the 21st century deer numbers have been reduced to allow trees to regenerate leaving the forest virtually ungrazed.
Whilst low grazing pressure has worked for tree regeneration, some plants (such as twinflower) and invertebrates (such as narrow headed ants) and birds (capercaillie and black grouse) may have found life without grazers harder.
However technology is at hand that could provide a solution. Our cunning cows are learning to associate musical beats, played through a solar powered collar, with a virtual fence. Virtual fencing is a way of managing herd movement through collars and online software more effectively than with physical fencing.
The technology involves a combination of GPS collars, cloud computing and online software to control where livestock graze. A boundary is ‘drawn’ on Grant’s (our farmer manager) smartphone and when the animal approaches that boundary the GPS collar gives an audio-warning stimuli, followed by a mild electric pulse if the animal continues. Early signs are that our cows are quick learners and the audio-warning is sufficient to keep them within the boundary.
This will allow our cattle to be grazed under the forest canopy where they are needed, whilst keeping cattle away from areas of heathland where forest expansion is ongoing and peatland (which they could damage). We will monitor the impact of cattle in the forest to understand the level of grazing that benefits a wide range of species.
In a project in partnership with Highland Carbon and the Cairngorm National Park Authority we will increase our capacity to ten collars. We are also working with Scottish Forestry and NatureScot on expanding the project further.
Peter Ferguson, our biodiversity manager said “Over the past 20 years, I have seen the heather beneath the forest canopy become taller and less inviting for wildlife. I am really excited to work with this project to see if lightly grazing cattle in the forest using no fence technology can help to improve the forest habitat and reverse the decline in some of the rare animals and plants.”
Grant, our farm manager said “Cattle graze using their long tongues to break up rank vegetation, leaving plants of varying height. Because they are heavier animals, their movement breaks up the ground and creates bare earth patches that enable wildflowers to seed and germinate. They can also trample through the scrub, opening ground that might otherwise become overgrown.
Cattle dung is also beneficial; it distributes nutrients around an area and provides a home to many insects. Studies have shown there can be more than 200 species living in dung, where cattle are free to roam and graze in this way.”