The old Blade Runner might want a real one, but a couple of replicant ringers have recently infiltrated fluffy flocks in North Wales. Don’t tell Shaun the Sheep, who has his own history as a robot fighter, but these electric ewes are all part of the quest for a better lamb chop.
Students at Bangor University are using the electric sheep to gauge how their real life counterparts respond to changes in weather. The question centers on how sheep feel if it is freezing cold or baking hot and the consequences for farm productivity. These lamb model decoys (oops, LMDs) are fitted with a battery driven heating system to simulate heat produced by a live animal.
The team are also measuring air flow and temperature around areas where trees or hedgerow provide shelter and comparing it to areas that don’t.
Phd student Pip Jones said: “We’re looking at how weather is experienced on a ‘sheep scale’ and although it’s early days I’ve been really surprised by some measurements. Sheep use a substantial amount of energy just staying warm; and lose a lot of heat when it’s cool, especially when there’s a wind chill.
“On a hot day when the weather was around 30C at the study site, we put a model sheep in direct sun, and the fleece recorded a temperature of 60C, which is incredibly hot. This is where the shelter of trees could really contribute, creating shade in the summer and reducing the effects of wind-chill in winter.”
Dr. Andy Smith, Senior Lecturer in Forestry at Bangor University’s School of Environment, Natural Resources & Geography adds:
“If it’s very cold a sheep burns more energy to keep warm for survival and it needs more food. Conversely if it’s too hot, animals tend to eat less and seek shade to keep cool. Both situations affect weight gain and productivity because energy that could go into growth is used to regulate metabolism instead.”
The team have already calculated the extra acreage required to feed a flock over a chilly winter.
There are some sheep who manage get up to the top of the mountain across the road in gale force winds. I wonder if the researchers can do the same? (I shouldn’t laugh, a shepherd over in Llanwrst had to swim through freezing floodwater to rescue his flock last year. It can be dangerous work looking after sheep somedays.)