GPS collars that alert cows when they reach a boundary are helping to improve habitats and boost biodiversity on a nature reserve near Brampton.

The project is based at RSPB Geltsdale and is pioneering in terms of wildlife and conservation grazing.

The new method of virtual fencing for livestock is being trialled in this part of the North Pennines to discover what benefits it has for wildlife conservation and high nature value farming in the uplands.

In Cumbria, 19 Highland cross cattle on the RSPB reserve of Geltsdale have successfully trialled the £300-per-collar technology as part of the Fellfoot Forward Landscape Partnership Scheme, led by the North Pennines AONB Partnership and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The system involves using a GPS collar and warning sounds to guide the animals where they can eat and roam. A virtual fence is drawn using a phone app and, when a cow nears the virtual fence boundary, a warning sound is given from the collar, worn around the cow’s neck. If the cow continues towards the boundary, the animal will feel a short electrical pulse from the collar.

The virtual fencing is put in place following natural lines in the landscape, which cattle recognise as a boundary. If an area becomes overgrazed, the fence is relocated to protect the area.

Mob, or ‘pulse’ grazing with low numbers of cattle is a long-established method of creating the ideal habitat for wildlife, allowing for areas to be grazed intensively for shorter periods until the desired habitat result is achieved.

However, it requires flexibility to relocate animals, which is not always practical in areas without permanent fencing. One solution is virtual fencing, and this pioneering project will allow the grazing to be managed in a way that will have positive benefits for the important species of birds that can be found at Geltsdale.

By managing the sward length of the vegetation at RSPB Geltsdale, threatened species such as the rare black grouse, ring ouzel and golden plover can thrive. It is a type of management which prevents overgrazing and allows for the natural revegetation of wilder habitats such as scrub, vital for the success of many upland species.

Fencing in the uplands also leads to bird strikes, particularly for declining species such as curlew and black grouse, and other upland birds such as short-eared owls.

Emma Wright from the North Pennines AONB Partnership, who manages the Fellfoot Forward scheme, said: “This is a very exciting prospect for upland farming. It allows grazing to be managed in a way that balances the needs of the farmer and the wildlife on the land they look after.

“Through Fellfoot Forward we’re delighted to be working with the RSPB and trialling this groundbreaking way of meeting the challenges of livestock management and nature recovery in the uplands.

"The next step will be to continue our work with high nature value farmers across this area of Cumbria and look at the potential of this on other sites within the scheme area.”

Ian Ryding from RSPB Geltsdale said: “The Nofence technology is a great tool for directing cattle into areas where it is very difficult to install standard post and wire fencing. Our wide, open spaces are important in this landscape and we prefer taking down fences rather than installing more. Fences can be a hindrance to wild birds, such as grouse and birds of prey, which can get tangled and die.

“We are also able to keep cattle away from some of the footpaths and trails, improving access and making the area safer for visitors.

"The mobile app which comes with the Nofence system allows us to constantly monitor the cattle, showing us where they are on the map and alerting us to any issues.”