Over the last couple of years, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has been running a virtual fencing pilot. Cattle were fitted with collars and farmers, through their phones, could map paddocks on land for them.
The collars would emit a beep or a shock if the animal went too near or over the fence.
Two farmers who took part in the pilot, Eileen Condon and James Gilmartin, recently shared their experience of the technology on a Farming for Nature webinar.
Eileen Condon farms 50ac of lowland ground and around 2,000ac of commonage with her husband Joe in the Knockmealdowns in Co Tipperary.
“Our system is a commonage beef farm and we have a herd of Galloways. They have been grazing the hills. They like being outside in that kind of environment and we sell our beef direct to the consumer.
“We noticed that the NPWS was seeking proposals and we had been looking at the concept of virtual fencing because of the fact that we do keep our cattle out on the commonage.
“First off, you don’t physically fence commonage, that’s a non-runner, but there were areas where we noticed that there was upland heath which was not being grazed and we thought, ‘well this could be a good partnership between biodiversity and also for us’, for our animals to have access to grazing that land.
“It would be an introduction of more diverse species in those areas that were under-grazed. We submitted a proposal to NPWS for that purpose.”
Condon said that they didn’t get the Galloway breed for virtual fencing. Instead, they have the breed for their land type.
If you think of a child, if they can eat the jelly and ice cream first before the broccoli, that’s what they’re going to do
“We have a very low-input farm, we don’t have a lot of machinery and rather than try to manipulate the land to suit a breed, a continental breed, we chose a breed that suits the land. We’ve had Galloways quite a while, prior to any thought of virtual fencing.
“It’s like anything though. If you think of a child, if they can eat the jelly and ice cream first before the broccoli, that’s what they’re going to do.
“There’s parts of the land that it would be difficult to keep the animals in. Hence, those places were under-grazed.
“We had been reading a lot about the importance of grazing as a tool for biodiversity and the virtual fence was a way for us to trial that in partnership with NPWS and their expertise with the ecologist.
“We left the mapping of the areas and assessing of those areas to the expert ecologist and we were happy to utilise the cattle as foot soldiers to do the work.
“We chose the animals carefully. Younger animals might be a bit more skittish. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work, but we wanted to have success with this so we chose more mature animals. We chose five animals for the research pilot.”
Condon said the technology was a game-changer. “That’s not an overstatement. The data was useful.
Where no animals in living memory would stay grazing was quite exciting
“We were really motivated by the fact there was a before and after capture of the grazing. And to go up and check the stock, it was amazing to go up there and see that they were staying there and they were happy there,” she said, adding that one cow calved in a virtual paddock and reared her calf there.
“Where no animals in living memory would stay grazing was quite exciting.”
The technology was not just new for the animals, it was new for the Condons.
“I think it takes a while to be pretty au fait with it. You have to have a bit of humility about making mistakes and seeing what they were and getting used to the technology, the app,” she said, noting that bad mobile phone coverage in mountainous areas was a pitfall.
“You have to always be au fait with the technology but also not trust it 100% in the sense that, for example, you’ll get reports on your app every 12 minutes or so.
“It opens up a lot of different possibilities, you could have a conservation grade beef or lamb product. It’s just another aspect to our product that we’re proud of.”
James Gilmartin is a part-time farmer in Manorhamilton in Leitrim with 130ac, including some commonage.
“We farm suckler cows, sheep and I’ve recently started a pasture poultry enterprise. I’ve been farming about 15 years in my own right and for the first five to 10 years you kind of follow the pattern of what conventional farming was in the area.
“You realise soon enough that it’s great if you have a part-time job or another job, but going forward it’s hard to see how [conventional farming] will work in the area,” he said.
Gilmartin decided that he would look around the farm and see what he could use.
He decided to give the tradition of booleying a go.
“I don’t know if people are familiar with the concept of booleying, but it’s an old process where farmers put their cattle to the hills for the summer months and they’d make their winter fodder and maybe have some extra feed then [from the lowland ground].
“We have commonage behind my house and it has never been grazed with cattle in my time and traditionally you’d assume that it was at some time.
“So, I was thinking, I’d love to get cattle back up there. But I guess there’d be a lot of trepidation with it because you have to think, animal welfare, land welfare, but because of under-grazing, they’ve sort of been neglected in certain ways,” he said.
This is where the idea of virtual fencing came from: “get them up there and we’ll get virtual fencing”.
Gilmartin’s farm is a suckler farm, with continental breeding.
For anyone familiar with Dexter cattle, they’re like the horned sheep of cattle, they’re kind of wild
“They were never going to be suitable going up there. I sourced and built up a small Dexter herd, which are a native Irish breed. They’re about half the size of a conventional cow. I knew they’d survive up there. I have five of them at the moment, with their weanlings and calves, so 15 altogether.
“Year one, I delayed calving until autumn and we put up the cows. They worked very well, condition wise they were in good shape. The next year I put up some bullocks.
“Now, for anyone familiar with Dexter cattle, they’re like the horned sheep of cattle, they’re kind of wild. With the numbers I had it was hard to be overly selective on temperament and what not. But I put them up there in good faith.
“They were a bit harder to handle, they were breaking through barriers at certain times, but that was the learning of it,” he said.
Gilmartin said that ecologists have carried out studies before and after the cattle being put on the hill and he has said there has been an improvement in biodiversity on the hill as a result.
For anyone considering the technology on their farm, he had this to say: “The farmer has to ask why do they want to do it in the first place and ask what their main objective is.”
You need to make sure the animal is trained with the technology too, he advised.