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What is virtual fencing (or virtual herding) and does it impact animal welfare?

What is virtual fencing?

Virtual fencing aims to remotely map and control livestock grazing behaviour without the use of fixed fences (Umstatter, 2011). This technology, which was first developed in 2005 by CSIRO and is now commercialised worldwide by Agersens, uses GPS sensors and wireless technologies (CSIRO, 2018).

How does virtual fencing work?

For virtual fencing to work, animals need to be fitted with a GPS collar. The collar emits a tone (audio cue) and an electric shock. As the animal approaches a pre-determined virtual barrier, the GPS collar emits an audio cue (a single continuous tone at 785 Hz ± 15 Hz). If the animal continues towards the barrier, the animal receives an aversive electric shock – in cattle, this is usually 800 V delivered in less than 1s (Campbell et al., 2018; Lee, Colditz and Campbell, 2018).

Animals are trained to understand virtual fencing through operant conditioning. This is a method of learning that utilises reward and punishment to shape behaviour (Skinner, 1938). Animals learn to respond to the audio cue (conditioned stimulus) to avoid receiving the electric shock (response stimuli).

Virtual fencing has the potential to improve livestock and pasture management and reduce labour and costs associated with fixed fences. However, the use of electric shocks raises significant ethical and animal welfare concerns. For example, what are the potential welfare implications to animals that are slow learners? Or for animals that never learn? Are there implications on animals’ mental state?

What are the learning abilities of animals, and the animal welfare implications of virtual fencing?

Although there are claims that virtual fencing is an animal-friendly technology (CSIRO, 2018) that meets high animal welfare standards (Agersens, 2018), there is a lack of research to support these statements, particularly regarding the long-term impacts of this technology on animal welfare.

One of the main welfare concerns of virtual fencing is the use of an electric shock, which has been shown to produce an acute stress response in animals (Lee et al., 2007). In addition, pain, aversion and chronic stress may occur (Umstatter, 2011)

Another welfare concern of this technology is that it exposes animals to an environment of low predictability and controllability, which can lead to anxiety and stress (Weiss, 1972; Lee, Colditz and Campbell, 2018). During the initial phase of training, animals do not know what the audio cue means, and therefore cannot avoid receiving the electric shock(s) (Lee, Colditz and Campbell, 2018).

Furthermore, as the virtual fence is not visible, it may be more complex for the animal to learn. Studies have reported that half of the herd learn to respond to the audio cue after 4-6 electric shocks, but high individual variation has been observed in animals’ rates of learning (Lee et al., 2009; Campbell et al., 2018). This suggests that some animals may learn much slower or may not learn at all, putting them at a higher risk of compromised welfare. Further studies are needed to investigate the long-term effects of virtual fencing on the physiological and behavioural response of animals.

Other welfare concerns of virtual fencing relate to potential irritation and/or ulceration of the skin due to the use of collars, choking on collars and equipment malfunction (Umstatter, 2011).

What are the laws around virtual fencing in in Australia?

State and territory animal welfare legislation determine where and what type of electronic devices can or cannot be used to contain livestock. The electronic GPS collars have been trialled on farms in Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania as part of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources Rural Research and Development for Profit Program (see here for more information). Currently, the collars are not commercially available in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Northern Territory and the ACT. However, exemption permits can be obtained for research purposes. In Victoria for example, electronic collars can be used on cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, camels, alpacas or llamas as part of a scientific procedure, or a program of scientific procedures, approved under a licence granted under Part 3 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 (Agriculture Victoria, 2018). In the Northern Territory, an exemption to the Animal Welfare Act will allow cattle to be fit with the collars and trials of the technology to take place.

What is the RSPCA’s view?

The RSPCA is opposed to the use of any electronically activated devices that deliver an electric shock to animals, as these are aversive. RSPCA supports the use of humane husbandry and management practices that do not cause pain, injury, suffering or distress.

References

Agersens (2018) Agersens news. Agersens Employs Animal Welfare Scientist. (accessed Oct 8 2019)

Agriculture Victoria (2018) Livestock Confinement. (accessed Oct 8 2019)

Campbell, D. L. M. et al. (2018) ‘Virtual fencing of cattle using an automated collar in a feed attractant trial’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Elsevier, 200, pp. 71–77. doi: 10.1016/J.APPLANIM.2017.12.002.

CSIRO (2018) Virtual fencing. (accessed Oct 8 2019)

Lee, C. et al. (2007) ‘Methods of training cattle to avoid a location using electrical cues’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Elsevier, 108(3–4), pp. 229–238. doi: 10.1016/J.APPLANIM.2006.12.003

Lee, C. et al. (2009) ‘Associative learning by cattle to enable effective and ethical virtual fences’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Elsevier, 119(1–2), pp. 15–22. doi: 10.1016/J.APPLANIM.2009.03.010.

Lee, C., Colditz, I. G. and Campbell, D. L. M. (2018) ‘A Framework to Assess the Impact of New Animal Management Technologies on Welfare: A Case Study of Virtual Fencing’, Frontiers in Veterinary Science. Frontiers, 5, p. 187. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2018.00187.

Skinner, B. (1938) The behavior of organisms an experimental analysis, New York London: D. Appleton-Century Company Incorporated. (accessed on Jan 8 2019)

Umstatter, C. (2011) ‘The evolution of virtual fences: A review’, Computers and Electronics in Agriculture. Elsevier, 75(1), pp. 10–22. doi: 10.1016/J.COMPAG.2010.10.005.

Umstatter, C., Morgan-Davies, J. and Waterhouse, T. (2015) ‘Cattle Responses to a Type of Virtual Fence’, Rangeland Ecology & Management. Elsevier, 68(1), pp. 100–107. doi: 10.1016/J.RAMA.2014.12.004.

Weiss, J. M. (1972) ‘Psychological factors in stress and disease’, Scientific American, 226(6), pp. 104–13. (accessed on Jan 8 2019)

Updated on October 8, 2019
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