Observing behavioural changes in sheep could help farmers with lambing management, research suggests

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A Hartpury University academic has contributed to a study assessing the duration and frequency of behavioural observations of pregnant ewes as they approached lambing. Having a greater understanding of behavioural changes before birth may provide opportunities for enhanced visual monitoring at this critical stage in the animal’s life.

Professor Matt Bell, Director of Agriculture at Hartpury University, worked alongside Beatrice Waters, John McDonagh, Kimberley Slinger and Zoe Huggett from the University of Nottingham, and Georgios Tzimiropoulos from Queen Mary University of London.

The hypothesis of the current study was that there is a change in sheep behaviour before giving birth, and this change can be visually observed. As sheep are often managed in large groups, close inspection of individual animals can be difficult. Developments in animal tracking technologies have helped farmers to manage individuals and to detect ill or injured animals.

The insights from this study may assist lambing management, allowing sensors to make more frequent and effective behaviour observations during parturition, as problems and mortality will ultimately affect both animal welfare and farm productivity.           

The objective of this study was to assess the duration and frequency of behavioural observations of pregnant sheep as they approached lambing. 17 sheep were followed in this study, following the normal husbandry procedure of being housed as a group at about 6 weeks prior to lambing to allow for closer monitoring. While the number of sheep used for this study appears small, it is consistent with other animal studies of a similar nature.

The behaviours of standing, lying, walking, shuffling and contraction behaviours, were recorded for each animal during both time periods.

The study found that sheep spend most of their time either standing or lying during pregnancy.  It found that pregnant ewes spend about 10 hours per day lying and 10 hours per day standing, a similar statistic to that of other ruminant animals such as cattle when indoors.

This current study found an increased frequency of lying bouts, including contractions, before lambing. Pregnant ewes spent a large proportion of their time either lying or standing, with a higher frequency of standing and shuffling bouts. Ewes that required assistance at lambing had more walking bouts compared to ewes that were unassisted.

The study concludes that monitoring behavioural patterns, such as lying and contractions, could indeed be used as an alert to the progress of parturition.

“Lambing is a critical time for sheep farmers across the UK and around the world, and large flocks present several challenges when trying to monitor individual animals. There are surprisingly few studies investigating the duration and frequency of behaviours of pregnant sheep, so I was delighted to be able to support this important research. The study paves the way for future research as it appears that observing changes in lying bouts and detecting contractions could assist farmers in monitoring parturition and ultimately enhancing sheep husbandry.

Research and knowledge exchange is an integral part of Hartpury University, working alongside industry professionals to drive change.

The MSc Applied Agricultural Sciences, Hartpury’s first official postgraduate agricultural degree, will welcome students from September 2022. Focusing on using science to improve protocols and sustainable solutions across the agricultural industry, the introduction of this exciting programme follows a period of exciting announcements from the department.

This includes the opening of the new £2 million Agri-Tech Centre committed to driving data-driven science and innovation in an ever-changing farming sector. £2m has also been invested in the Digital Innovation Farm Tech Box Park to provide work spaces for agribusinesses due to launch officially this summer; part of a 10-year strategy to provide world-class agricultural facilities, education and research.

Hartpury offers a range of college and university agriculture programmes and has added its first official postgraduate agricultural degree for 2022. The Graduate Outcomes 2021 survey, reflecting 2019 graduates, showed an impressive 100% of students had gone on to employment, education or purposeful activity.

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