For centuries, shepherds have been at loggerheads with the wild wolves that want to eat their sheep. To protect their flocks, they've turned to everything from bullets and big dogs to poison and electric fencing. But what if they could endow their sheep with a predator defence system, and avoid harming wolves in the process?
Enter the "bionic" sheep, otherwise known as the "Ultrasonic Flock Protection System" project.
Created by Madrid-based artist Fernando García Dory, the idea is to stop wolves from attacking a flock by equipping sheep with a collar that emits an ultrasound frequency inaudible to sheep and humans but hopefully highly unpleasant for wolves. Dory recently presented the 'bionic sheep' project at an event organized by Arts Catalyst, a science, technology, and culture center in London.
"In 2006, I was reading about the non-lethal tools that the police used to deal with demonstrators and calm them," Dory told me over the phone, also citing the sound cannons used against protesters at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. "That grabbed my attention because we just wanted to push wolves away, but we didn't want to kill them."
Dory came up with the idea while conducting research at a shepherd school located in the National Park of Picos de Europa in northern Spain, where he spent his childhood summers. It's still a work-in-progress, and Dory states that part of the project's value is in artistically calling attention to the important role played by shepherds in Spanish cultural traditions.
In this region of northern Spain, shepherds have lived alongside wolves for centuries and used their own methods to control their numbers. In the past, for example, Dory said groups of shepherds went into the woods together and made loud noises in order to push wolves out of their territories. They also hired professional hunters to keep wolf numbers down, but without exterminating them completely.
In a bid to preserve northern Spain's shepherding culture, Dory therefore turned to technology. He readied his first "bionic" sheep device prototype in 2006 with the help of engineers and shepherd friends in Spain. He intended for it to be a solar-powered device that emitted an ultrasound frequency of around 40kHz, which is audible and unpleasant for dogs and wolves, but not for humans and sheep (who have lower hearing ranges). He admitted, however, that back then the system was limited.
"We tested the 2006 prototype with wolves, but [the ultrasound frequency] only had a half-metre effect, and the volume probably wasn't strong enough to be disgusting for the wolves," said Dory.
With no further funding to continue the project, Dory had to wait a further nine years before he could start making the second prototype with the help of funding from the National Park of Picos de Europa.
For "Bionic Sheep 2," he is collaborating with Paolo Cavagnolo, an Italian hacker with a background in nuclear engineering.
While testing out Bionic Sheep 1, Dory discovered that the weakest component of the device was the ultrasound emitter. As he wants the new device to be effective to a radius of around 20 metres, he is currently working with Cavagnolo on improving its capabilities.
"We wanted to play with the volume and frequency in order to determine which frequency and volume were most disgusting for the wolf," said Dory, who has yet to test the second prototype device on captive wolves.
The actual construction of the device is not without its challenges.
"We have to consider things like how much power this device needs, and whether it will be useful for society, and if it will deter wolves," said Cavagnolo. "When you have the answers to all these things you can proceed to designing the collar and shrinking all the key components like the battery and the speaker."
While Dory said he'd already received interest from shepherds and farmers from other EU countries with wolf problems, others remain skeptical.
"Wolves are incredibly bright animals and great problems solvers," Sue Hull, the director of the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, told me over the phone. "I'm keeping an open mind about this device, but what the pair have to do now, once they've sorted out a power source for it, is test it out on some captive wolves to see if they get any adverse responses."
Hull suggested that that in the future, technology such as drones that spot and dive bomb wolves could be developed. "It's always going to be an ongoing battle," she added.
While the bionic sheep device is still in early stages, it's a tentative departure from the days of using bullets and poison to steer wolves away from flocks. If all goes to plan, Dory wants the collars to be available commercially for around 30 to 40 euros in the future, and to be open source.
"When people think about a sheep with this technology they laugh; it seems unusual and almost ridiculous for them to have this technology," he said. "But when we look back we will be embarrassed by how we felt. It's important to preserve the important ecological role that the shepherd has [in our culture]."