Electronic tagging to tackle black loss

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PIONEERING tracker tag technology will be used to help solve just what happens to the thousands of lambs that die annually on the hill farms in the north-west of Scotland.

This unexplained disappearance of sheep, commonly known as “black loss”, has been a fact of life for highland sheep farmers but these deaths can mean the difference between profit and loss for many farm businesses.

Kenny Matheson, of Milton, Aberarder, Inverness, reckoned he lost around 10 per cent of his lamb crop in a normal year but that figure has now been proven to be low compared with initial results from four farms where close monitoring has taken place over the past two years and where an average loss of 18.3 per cent has been recorded.

Ironically the solution could come thanks to one of the issues fiercely opposed by the industry; the electronic identification (EID) of sheep.

Bob Yuill, the manager of ScotEID which manages all the information coming from sheep EID programme, said that he had just returned from China where he had met researchers in “active” tag technology to investigate the potential use of sensors and global positioning technology to see if an “active” tag or collar could be manufactured. This would allow the farmer to know where his lambs were and this would in turn help identify where and when they go missing.

“The main benefit of active tags is that they can be monitored remotely to check for changes of movement by the sheep,” he said.

“Any unusual or lack of animal movement recorded by sensors would be interpreted as a sign of illness or death, and black loss.”

Yuill believed the technology would be both affordable and usable within a couple of years and this would help pin down the problem.

He added the next step would be to develop the in-field use of active tag technology using wavelengths which could transmit information in extensive grazing areas with difficult topography.

Then GPS integration with the tags would be developed along with suitable sensor technology, such as 3D accelerometers, to monitor small movements of sheep.

Kathy Peebles, livestock development officer with Quality Meat Scotland, which has also supported the project, said that there were a number of theories about what happens to the lambs but these were largely anecdotal.

“Our on-going priority is to identify a practical and cost effective technology to track the lambs on the hill over the summer.”