Sheep on Dartmoor
Title: Animal Mounted Living Laboratory
Funding: Seale-Hayne Educational Trust
Duration: 2023–2025
University of Plymouth staff: Dr Mark Whiteside (PI), Dr Katherine Herborn, Mr Tony Wilson 
Partners: Central Dartmoor Farm Cluster; Middle Dunstone Farm, Devon, UK
Advances in sensor technology and computational approaches bring new opportunities to gather data that will improve efficiency in agricultural practice and understanding of emerging disease and welfare risks. While other livestock production systems, such as poultry, dairy and pig farming, start to benefit from these advancements, two key sectors are left behind: upland farming and the game industry.

Connectivity challenges

In these sectors, animals live in and will navigate through a complex, vast and rugged environment that is often too large to monitor via fixed sensors, and also restricted by poor connection opportunities (e.g. remote locations without Wi-Fi; valley systems without 4G; forested areas without satellite visibility).
We are limited in how we can monitor and improve the health, welfare and production of over 60 million sheep and gamebirds in the UK, as well as determine and mitigate their environmental impact (habitat loss, eutrophication, disease spread) or improve the ecosystem services that they provide (habitat management, soil health, biodiversity), all of which are seen as payment priorities under Environmental Land Management schemes.
Pheasant on Dartmoor

The Animal Mounted Living Laboratory

This research project aims to integrate cutting-edge advances in animal-mounted sensor technologies with the latest automation to create a ‘living laboratory’. Our work will bring, for the first time, two key but understudied agricultural sectors in the South West – upland farming and the game industry – into the precision livestock framework. These bespoke agri-tech solutions will not only provide high-throughput, real-time information about an animal’s movement, behaviour and physiology, but also on the local environmental conditions being experienced and how these interact.
Recent advances in Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) technologies have allowed us to design, develop and deploy an automated system, with an array of gateways and a central network, to detect information emitted by animal mounted sensors. Crucially, a LoRaWAN system uses a very narrow bandwidth with low power consumption that means it has long range coverage (detectable up to 10 miles) and can penetrate buildings and forests. This system therefore has the potential to detect sensors and assimilate data for long periods of time, across environments that are inaccessible to current automated systems.
Scientific objectives:
  • Develop animal mounted sensors that can be used to advance precision agriculture in sheep and pheasants by monitoring behaviour, movement and physiology, as well as environmental conditions. 
  • Develop an automated system, capable of working in areas non-conducive to current technologies, that would feedback information from the sensors.
  • Use the system to study the behaviour and environmental impact of sheep and pheasants.
Educational objectives: 
  • Engage upland farmers, game practitioners, landowners, policy makers, NGOs and future funders on the potential application of automated systems to inform and support their practice.
  • Support a range of scientific projects in the fields of agriculture, big data/GIS, automation, animal behaviour and environmental management.
Sheep farm on Dartmoor
Our project partner, Middle Dunstone Farm, will allow access to the site for the duration of the project. This will provide a site for researchers, students, practitioners, representatives of NGO’s, future funders and policy makers to visit to see how the system works and what it could mean for their practice. Our outreach will also cover partner colleges who may have students interested in countryside management and game keeping.

Potential impacts

In the face of climate change, biodiversity decline and worldwide food shortages, this work is highly prescient. The agricultural sector has great influence in the South West and the research could have major financial, ethical and environmental benefits for sustainability of both the upland farm and the game industry.
This is pertinent, as 20% of all sheep farming in England is in the South West, on the uplands of Dartmoor, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor. Similarly, 28% of all shooting in the UK operates in the South West, supporting 10,000 jobs and effecting over 1.8 million hectares, although the environmental impact of releasing ~12.6 million game birds in the region is largely unknown.
Thermal image of a sheep with mapping tracking movements
Thermography equipment and mapping software are also being used to non-invasively monitor the animals' behaviour and physiology.
Precision and automation within both of these sectors could not only help refine future practice retrospectively, but also monitor for immediate intervention (e.g. speed up and target medication, find the animal, find the broken fence, etc). It will help us to understand how these animals influence the environment, which could in turn inform on future payment strategies and influence land use policy.
Tractor mowing fields by the sea

Sustainable Food Production Research Group

At the University of Plymouth, our cross-disciplinary researchers study all aspects of food production and its impact on the natural environment.
Find out more about our plant and animal productive systems research, and how we are applying automation and sensor technology to ensure sustainable food production without compromising ecosystem services and biodiversity.

Centre of Research excellence in Intelligent and Sustainable Productive Systems (CRISPS)

The Centre of Research excellence in Intelligent and Sustainable Productive Systems (CRISPS) brings together a vibrant community of transdisciplinary researchers, working towards addressing the challenge of sustainably feeding a global population of 9 billion. Founded upon research excellence in aquaculture, agricultural technology and soil health, and underpinned by investment in cutting-edge facilities, the Centre will create the critical mass required to ensure impactful research and real-world deployment in the UK and beyond.
Centre of Research Excellence in Intelligent and Sustainable Productive Systems (CRISPS) lead image showing a hand holding soil and a plant.