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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Reeves

A Tale of Two Field Seasons

Michelle Reeves, PhD Student, Scotland’s Rural College

Data collection in the field and on-farm was by far the part of my PhD I was most excited about. It didn’t disappoint – between getting soaked to the bone on a raised platform in a windstorm and being nibbled on by curious young lambs in a drought, the Pentland Hills around Edinburgh provided a beautiful backdrop for my two field seasons.

Michelle with the lambs in the sick pen at Firth Mains Farm

My PhD at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) is researching welfare indicators in sheep that could be measured by Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) technology. This led me to spend my last two summers with a flock at Moredun’s research farm, Firth Mains, observing their behaviour and monitoring their welfare through in-person observations, health sampling and gadgets in collars around the sheep’s necks. So why did I want to look into this? Sensors like activity monitors and proximity beacons are often used on dairy cows in research and on-farm, but their use in sheep is much rarer. Despite this, sheep reared on unfenced pastures and without much human supervision could greatly benefit from individual monitoring if the tech could alert farmers to health and welfare risks before they become serious.

Ewes and lambs after being fitted with the first iteration of the technology collars in Michelle’s field trial.

The 2021 grazing season was our first attempt at collecting all of this data. We had 72 sheep in a few paddocks, half wearing snazzy homemade collars and the other half acting as controls in case the collars themselves affected the sheep’s behaviour. All the animals were facing naturally occurring gastrointestinal parasites by grazing, as any commercial flock would. We also monitored cases of lameness and mastitis, as along with parasitism, these are some of the most important welfare concerns for sheep in the UK. The funniest – or most embarrassing, depending on the way you look at it – part of setting up this trial was asking the farm managers to set up a 5 metre high hunting chair in the middle of the sheep paddocks. This was crucial so that I could observe the entire flock at once for my behavioural records, ensuring I never missed a single bout of lambs playing or feeding at their dam’s udder, both measures of lamb welfare. They never let me forget how silly I looked perched up there, bundled against the wind and rain and peering through my binoculars, playfully waving at me every time they drove by the paddocks.

Michelle’s observation chair set up in the sheep paddock

This first field season is when we discovered just how labour intensive collecting all the samples would be. Every fortnight, the shepherd gathered all the sheep and we ran them through a race to a weight crate, where we took faecal and blood samples while checking welfare indicators like dag score (how dirty the sheep’s back end is) and body condition score. We quickly found out it took 6 people and 4 hours to go smoothly. Although they were long, sometimes chilly, sampling sessions, they were also very fun, productive days on top of being a team-building exercise like no other!

The race leading to the weigh crate for sampling at Firth Mains

I certainly hope my colleagues felt as satisfied as I did during the sampling days, because the following summer, we asked them to do it all over again. This time we used 108 sheep over 22 weeks instead of 15 and took even more samples! In 2022, we also took milk samples from the ewes. These sheep are bred for meat production so their udders are small, difficult to access, and the ewes usually aren’t thrilled to give away the milk meant for their growing lambs! However, we felt milk sampling and testing was a crucial tool in tracking mastitis infections. This second field season was longer and hotter (with days reaching 32 degrees in Scotland!). It involved more people and more animals, and much more time observing in the field for me – sans hunting chair this time. This meant more data and more time spent with the lambs, from birth until they were sent to market.

Closely observing the lambs and ewes for five months was a meditative and calming experience – when it wasn’t raining sideways. I had to be patient, detail-oriented and organised, which doesn’t always come naturally to an excited scientist in a rush to see results!

A rainbow over the sheep paddocks at Firth Mains
Michelle bundled up on one of the windier, rainier days in the field

My colleagues, supervisors and the farm team were crucial to this data collection. Their hard work and patience meant we collected huge amounts of behaviour, welfare and technological data. Thanks to them, we’ll be able to see if the tech tools can detect changes in behaviour brought on by the early stages of diseases like nematode infection or mastitis. I’m looking forward to sharing the results of our research with them soon. This data now requires laborious analysis, but whenever I get tired of working on the computer, I just mentally escape to the top of my 5-metre perch in the paddock, looking out at the rolling hills dotted with sheep on a sunny day.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 862050.

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