Military satellites previously used to direct missiles to their targets have been drafted in to help stop sheep over-grazing in the west of Ireland. Sheep on a government farm have been fitted with transmitters to track their movements round the clock and try to find out why they graze on some areas but not others. The farm is laid out on a computer grid so that the global positioning satellite system GPS can track sheep movements to the nearest meter. The experimental farm in County Mayo is at the forefront of efforts to preserve the natural environment under threat from soil erosion and pollution. GPS has been able to open up the whole issue of why sheep concentrate in particular areas for grazing rather than others, and what part the weather plays. Five sheep have been fitted with radio collars and the others have been given fake collars so as not to feel left out. Preliminary findings suggest sheep frequent certain parts of a mountain because of family tradition, and can travel up to 1.6 km (one mile) a day.
Scientists hope GPS will help them learn whether hillsides would be protected if sheep were simply removed from certain areas. If weather patterns or homing instincts were shown however to play a part in determining sheep movements, removing them would not solve the problem. Over-grazing has long been a problem in the west of Ireland, one of the most scenic spots in the country. A European Union news – web sites environmental protection scheme in the 1990s designated a number of hill areas as suffering from over-grazing. As a result, sheep numbers were cut by 30 percent and certain areas have been put under special protection. The Irish Farmers’ Association welcomed the initiative, saying: “It’s important we use whatever mechanisms available to get a better understanding of the grazing patterns of sheep.