August 7, 2012

Texting Sheep: Watch Out, Big Bad Wolf

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Swiss biologists, including wolf expert Dr. Jean-Marc Landry from the Swiss Carnivore Research Group, are testing a new way to protect remote herds of sheep from wolves: text messaging.

The wolf-warning device is a collar that will text the shepherd if the sheep's heart rate rises and stays high for a increased period of time. This signals that the sheep is in distress and needs help. The collar is seen as a replacement for expensive sheepdogs for those small herd owners can't afford.

Early prototypes of the collar, employing heart rate monitors similar to those used by runners, have been tested on 12 Swiss sheep. The test took place in the Bernese Alps above the ski resort Les Diablerets. It involved scaring the sheep with muzzled Czechoslovakian Wolfdogs. The dogs circled the sheep before launching an attack. Readings from the collars showed a significant spike in heart rates when the predators attacked.

What researchers found was that a sheep's heart rate is about 60-80 beats per minute at rest, and triple that when they are distressed.

Growing numbers of sheep from Switzerland to Italy are being attacked and eaten by wolves. After nearly a century of wolf-free pastures, there have been a spate of attacks in recent years. Farmers and biologists attribute this to the Gray Wolf being under the endangered species protection, which allowed the animal to make a comeback and start reasserting its presence in the Alps. Even when the sheep aren't eaten, they knock down fences and flee, sometimes miles, making it expensive and difficult to keep a flock together.

Texting isn't the only defense for this collar, however. Depending on how remote the herd is, even a text message could come too late. A second round of testing this fall will include a wolf repellant, either a spray or a noise, which will automatically trigger when the text message is sent.  The details of the repellant have not be released, but Dr. Landry is the author of a paper entitled Non-lethal techniques for reducing predation, which suggests the system will not be a deadly one.

The final prototype is scheduled to be tested in Switzerland and France in 2013. Norway has also shown interest in the project.

Coincidentally, Dr. Landry and his team are not the only ones to think of sheep and cell phones together. South African sheep farmer Erard Louw set up a system to allow his sheep to call him if they were being stolen. Louw's sheep have collars that detect when they break into a run, indicating intruders in their pasture.