If you visit the remote College Valley in the National Park this summer you may notice something a bit different about the native cattle grazing the slopes of Cheviot – some will be wearing collars, not with a traditional cow bell, but a with a specially-designed Global Positioning System (GPS) unit to track their movements via satellite in real time.
The digitally-connected herd of native breed Luing cattle and farmer, Adam Waugh, are taking part in a major piece of agricultural research by Newcastle University to find out why cattle travel where they do and how this affects the nationally-important plants and wildlife of the Cheviot Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The project is being supported and funded by Cheviot Futures, College Valley Estate and the Sir James Knott Trust and is being facilitated by Northumberland National Park Authority.
Understanding and managing livestock distribution is very important for conservation management and GPS technology is a state of the art tool allowing researchers to learn why animals make the choices they do about where to graze or take shelter and consequently the impact they have on the environment.
Recently, the established sheep flock which grazed the area of the Cheviot Massif within College Valley were removed when The Estate decided to lower livestock numbers and put an even greater emphasis on conservation management on this part of The Estate. The native cattle involved in this project will be the only livestock grazing the Cheviot Massif this summer. The cattle will not have grazed on The Cheviot before and will initially have to explore the area to find the best grazing, water and shelter. They will also be influenced by extreme weather events that seem to be becoming more common place as a result of climate change.
Tracking animals, even something as large as a cow, can be very challenging in remote locations, especially during the night or in periods of bad weather, so remote positioning is very useful. Unlike radio collars, which have been used before for monitoring animals in the National Park, GPS collars enable the location of each animal to be recorded on the collar at a pre-determined interval without someone having to go out on the hill and locate the animal. GPS collars can also give an indication of what the animal is doing by recording how it is moving. The information stored on the collar can then be obtained via satellite link to a computer.
In addition to providing data for the research, the information will help Adam Waugh know where his cattle are on Cheviot, and provide a teaching resource for local schools and University students. Local student Jack Snowball from Alnwick, who is studying at Newcastle University will be involved in the project this summer by analysing the GPS data under the guidance of Dr Richard Bevan. The researchers will also undertake observations of the cattle out on the hill to obtain additional information about their behaviour and grazing patterns. Initial results should be available by the end of the year.
Mary Gough, Farming Advisor for Northumberland National Park Authority, said: “The results from this cattle tracking work will be linked to information on vegetation and wildlife distribution and abundance. This will help us gain a better understanding of how the cattle grazing influences the important habitats in the Cheviots and the wildlife they support. In future we hope to extend the work to tracking sheep as well as cattle.”
Tracy Hall, Cheviot Futures Project Officer added: “This innovative take on recording livestock movement and activity in the Cheviot Hills will offer a valuable insight into the behaviour of new livestock introduced to an upland environment. In particular, the way the cattle use the grazing area available to them, and how they behave in different weather conditions will provide information relevant to livestock producers seeking to make efforts to increase their resilience to the effects of climate change.”
Dr Richard Bevan of Newcastle University said: “The GPS collars will provide us with precise locations of the cattle while they roam the area. This information will then give us a unique insight into how the cattle use the available area and how they affect the local biodiversity”