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Lame idea: BBC to feature ‘Fitbit for sheep’

Date 16.11.2017

University led research features on prime time TV staple The One Show this evening, after presenter Kev Duala and the team spent a day on the farm with some of our researchers.

The popular BBC show came to see a demonstration of a nifty bit of kit being developed at the University that can detect the signs of lameness in sheep.

And One Show viewers will be able to get right in amongst the flock thanks to ‘sheep cam’.

The harness mounted camera gives the ewe’s eye view of a prototype sensor, and illustrates why lameness is such a huge welfare and commercial concern for farmers globally.

Often caused by contagious diseases, lameness can result in poor growth, infertility, and even death if left untreated, with the estimated cost to the UK farming industry in the region of £80 million a year.

The wearable tech – the development of which has involved strapping mobile phones onto sheep to collect movement data – is the brainchild of the University’s Dr Ali Al-Sherbaz and Dr Scott Turner.

And whilst shepherds once watched their flocks by night, this invention could keep a virtual eye out for problems 24/7.

Dr Al-Sherbaz, Associate Professor in Computing, said: “It was great to be able to welcome the BBC to see the progress we have made with our idea.

“Our ‘early warning system’ shows real promise. Infected sheep have a characteristic limp, so we decided that the best way to detect it remotely was to develop a wearable sensor.”

Smart phones proved to be the perfect data collectors for this due to the plethora of sensors already built in.

The pair, along with PhD student Zainab Al-Rubaye, have now designed software that can distinguish between healthy and lame sheep using the data collected from these phones.

“Now we know we can tell the difference, the next step is to build the software into a bespoke sensor that will automatically alert the farm when a sheep starts to limp,” added fellow Associate Professor Dr Turner.

The pair came up with the idea after being approached by animal welfare expert Dr Wanda McCormick from nearby Moulton College, who was looking for solutions to the problem of sheep lameness.

“Early detection means less distress for the animal, easier and cheaper treatment, and less chance of it spreading amongst the flock,” explained Dr McCormick.

“However, with farmers looking after hundreds of sheep spread over many square miles, it can often be hard to spot the painful condition in its initial stages.”

The hope now is to find a commercial partner who can help miniaturise the sensor and produce them on a scale that is economically viable for sheep farmers.

Thanking the research team, One Show presenter, Kev, called his day filming the project as “very interesting”.


You can watch again on BBC iPlayer here (available until the 18th December 2017)