Oh deer! Scotland needs some tech smarts to help monitor its rampant herbivore populations

Drones and satellite imagery probably better than sending out four helicopters at a time – or counting poop


Herbivores may not be the first things that spring to mind when devising the latest application of the technology world's overflowing toolbox, but there it is.

Scottish Natural Heritage is on the hunt for a system to measure and thereby better control the country's dangerously expanding population of vegetarians. No, not the meat-dodging, tofu-munching brigades of hipsters hellbent on urban gentrification, but deer – glen-dwelling quadrupeds that chomp through greenery with the help of four-chambered stomachs.

A technology challenge and £250,000 tender notice published by Scottish Natural Heritage asks: "How can we use technology to estimate herbivore populations and their impacts across Scotland in a greener and more cost-effective way?"

But why the pressing need for a better system? Measures currently taken to monitor deer population are costly, have a heavy carbon footprint and are not all that accurate. They seem to revolve around helicopters, which isn't a good look for an organisation promoting environmental wellness north of the border. Some counts might take up to four days with four helicopters, and snow makes the task even more difficult.

"Methods of collating, quality assuring, presenting and sharing the data are also fairly costly in terms of staff time needed to ensure a high level of accuracy to generate stakeholder confidence in findings," the contract notice said.

A spokeswoman for Scottish Natural Heritage told The Register: "With no natural predators left, deer numbers have increased substantially in Scotland over the past 60 years. In parts of Scotland, high deer populations affect forest re-growth and damage important natural heritage site[s]. Culling deer is often the only way to protect trees, natural areas and crops in some parts of Scotland, as well as to reduce road accidents. Deer stalking and culling also help support many fragile rural economies in Scotland."

She said that up-to-date national population estimates for red and roe deer were required. Current estimates are that there are up to 900,000 deer in Scotland, including between 360,000 to 400,000 red deer. It is difficult to get an accurate count, however, as deer are widespread, may be under cover, and are often on the move.

Aerial deer counts are snapshots in time so reflect a particular day. They can't account for deer movements across the range or for varying local conditions affecting deer distribution. For this reason, deer counts provide only part of the information used to inform deer management decisions and should be used alongside other information, such as the impact of deer on habitats.

As well as the latest data technologies, tender bids could include the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) or perhaps satellite imagery, Scottish Natural Heritage said.

The tender is in the form of an industry challenge, marshalled by Scotland's innovation quango CivTech.

"Any organisation, team or individual can respond to them. Applications are assessed and shortlisted proposals go into an exploration stage where they're developed further," according to its website.

Bidders will potentially "build a product and a business to take it as far as possible. Because... the challenges we issue aren't 'single organisation' problems – most exist worldwide."

How much of a global market is available for drone-based deer counting is not known by El Reg's bambi aficionados, and Gartner doesn't yet have a Magic Quadrant for such things.

Other alternatives to helicopter-powered deer counting are available, but they are somewhat unsavoury. "Deer managers can assess deer numbers using indirect methods such as dung counting where direct observation is difficult," according to the Scottish Natural Heritage website.

Still, the average technology professional might be familiar with understanding a problem by using an approach that involves looking around and noticing how much shit there is everywhere. ®

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