Might ‘virtual’ fencing help reduce the Molinia jungle on Dartmoor?

I have written a lot in the past about the issue of under-grazed un-grazed areas of purple moor grass, known also as Molinia, on Dartmoor. There are some very significant areas of this grass on Dartmoor’s Commons, most on areas of wet heath or hydrologically non-functional blanket bog. It forms areas of tussocky vegetation which tends to swamp other plants and can be very difficult to walk through. The main way of dealing with this problem is through the spring and early summer grazing of this grass by cattle. Between May and July Moliniais both nutritious and palatable to cattle. The challenge on the Commons of Dartmoor has been getting the cattle into the Molinia blocks and then shepherding them to stay there. In this day and age, the necessary labour is often not available to achieve this.

With this issue in mind I attended a webinar yesterday, organised by the Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership on ‘Cows and Conservation: the role of livestock in landscape restoration’. There were a number of presentations but three seemed very relevant to the Dartmoor Molinia problem.

Huw Connick talked about ‘Holistic Management’ – these are the ideas pioneered by Allan Savory who lives in Zimbabwe, many farmers in this country are attracted to his ideas and they are better illustrated here by ‘mob grazing’ where large numbers of grazing animals are put on a small strip of a field and restrained by electric fencing and then moved onto the next strip etc. This allows grassland to be grazed and then have significant period of time to recover and grow before they are grazed again. The idea of mob grazing is to mimic the situation found on Africa’s savannahs where predators are constantly moving the herds of grazers along which stops specific areas becoming over-grazed. Achieving this on Dartmoor’s Commons is not practical on account of the shepherding that is required and of course the absence of livestock predators, however …

The second talk was by Synne Foss Budal who works for a Norwegian company called  ‘NoFence Grazing Technology – the world’s first virtual fence for livestock’. They have produced a collar for either cattle, sheep or goats which allows graziers to select an area of ground where they want their animals to graze, if the animals attempt to stray out of the designated area, the collar initially makes a sound audible to the animal and if it continues to stray it will receive a ‘pulse’ (electric shock) which makes it return to where it is supposed to be. The system works by GPS, a phone-based GIS app and also requires 2G phone connectivity so that the farmer can keep a digital eye on their stock. 

There is a very informative website – here – with a series of videos showing the system in action, additionally there is a user guide which can be downloaded

The last presentation was by Emma Wright of the North Pennines AONB Partnership where she talked about the use of the NoFence technology by the RSPB at their Geltsdale Reserve in the North Pennines where the system is used on cattle.

There is clearly a cost to this system, I have tried to draw up some ball-park figures to give you an idea of the investment required. Costs come in two parts, the one-off purchase of the collars, batteries, chargers etc and the annual costs of using the software and GPS – these costs are determined by the number of collars utilised and the duration of the grazing period. In a Dartmoor context using suckler cows, it is only the mothers that require the collars.

Here are a few broad brush sets of costings. It would appear that a collar charger and spare battery for a cow costs around £350.

Number of cattleGrazing durationCapital costAnnual charge
503 months£17,500£1350
1003 months£35,000£2430
508 months£17,500£2640
1009 months£35,000£4860

These are not insignificant sums of money! Additionally, the drawing up of grazing areas where it is desirable to hold cattle to graze the Molinia will of course also need to include the areas that contain their drinking sources, not all Commons may be suitable for such an approach, but nevertheless it struck me that this might a technology which might be able to play a role to help hill-farmers and deliver conservation outputs.

These ‘collar’ technologies have been around for a while, but earlier versions involved cables in the soil and there were doubt whether the GPS versions actually works, NoFence appear to have a system which works. 

As we move towards ELMS and the vision to see our National Parks richer in wildlife with hill-farmers delivering a range of public goods, it strikes me that a trial on Dartmoor would be a good thing. In due course, if effective the deployment of such a system could be funded by ELMS. Be interested to hear what hill-farmers and conservationists think.

3 thoughts on “Might ‘virtual’ fencing help reduce the Molinia jungle on Dartmoor?

  1. Adrian you are correct and and Mary Alford has offered to research / use on her cows!
    Eamon Crowe was also interested and inferred NE were trying it to hold dry cows on Molinia.
    I will send Christopher grazing regime on Plynlimon after weaning when cows are dry and can afford to
    Lose some flesh off their backs until 6 weeks before calving in Spring when supplements are essential and strongly supported by NFU.
    In the spring I was hoping to go to Scottish rural Uni SRUC who are trialling on hill sheep and RSPB in Orkneys on outwintered cows.
    Much better to try here with 2/3 days on tight grAzing on Molinia with an asset as C and Molland do throw grass nuts on new areas daily. If the herd is big enough then access to water on part of the hill grazing is not such a problem 10 gals per cow? Layland thought that possible.. Also with the new funding for removing bracken might be by trampling which exposes roots to frost . Mary used to have much reduced bracken when trampled in Winter,.
    Dr Fraser IBERS who worked with Joss on ponies is keen to have trials at Pwllpeiran Welsh hill farm both growing better brands of cocksfoot. Festuca Lolium Trefoil and white clover . I hope they get funding. PFLA have a new research on importance of grass fed meat to be healthy with levels of omega 3 .
    Bring on collars and GPS on mobiles and safe a lot of labour . Best wishes Fairfax

  2. Exciting times for Dartmoor and a possible solution to help halt the spread of Molinia. It would be
    a significant investment for the farmer and the collars might be a hazard for the grazing cattle, but I cant wait to see how the trials pan out. Add a reflective coating to the collar and you also safeguard the cow from the careless motorist (In the past I’ve suggested reflective ear tags for cattle and sheep on the commons but no supplier would take the idea up).

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