Impacts and management of starlings on dairy farms
I: Excluding starlings from cattle feed using a novel acoustic deterrent.
Starlings cause significant economic damage at dairy farms by consuming and contaminating cattle feed. Farmers suffer impacts through loss of feed, reduced milk yields, and veterinary bills that may be linked to pathogens spread by starlings. Starlings are red listed (highest conservation priority) in the UK and are protected under the Wildlife Countryside Act (1981). Killing starlings is therefor illegal or, when performed under license, inefficient and costly. Given problems associated with physically excluding starlings, deterrents designed to scare starlings are popular with farmers. However, current visual and audio starling deterrents offer limited effectiveness, with starlings quickly habituating to the device since no real danger is present.
Research led by Dr Richard Woods at the University of Exeter (Cornwall Campus) aims to field-test a new type of acoustic deterrent called a “sonic net” that may have particular application on dairy and beef farms. The system obscures starling vocal communication, rather than imitating a threat, and therefore could provide a long-lasting means of deterring starlings from cattle housing and feed stores. The technology has been developed and tested in the USA in work led by Professor John Swaddle at the University of William and Mary, VA. There, following successful laboratory trials, the system has already shown its real-world application by deterring birds at an airfield, with reducing bird-strike being a major safety and economic concern for air-travel. Our research will trial this new technology on farms in Cornwall.
APT-GB is a Cornish-based acoustic company that produces bespoke audio equipment. Innovation is, therefore, a key component of their business. In collaboration with the University of Exeter, they are helping to further develop the hardware used for our experimental trials, and developing a product that could be commercialised for use on farms.
II: Starlings as potential vectors of livestock disease and antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
Whilst our work trialling new deterrent technology seeks to address the problem of starlings consuming feed intended for livestock, we are also exploring whether starlings could be transporting pathogens between farms. Given the prevalence of antibiotic usage on farms, it is possible that starlings could contribute to the rapid spread of any antimicrobial resistant bacteria. This has potential implications for disease-prevention in livestock, but also has global implications for human health.
Through extensive sampling of cattle faeces, starling faeces, and cattle feeds, we aim to build a picture of the different pathogens in the system. By monitoring starling movements, both at a local scale and, using stable isotope analysis, at an international level, we will examine the role starlings may play in allowing AMR to spread more easily.