These farmers use drones to watch their flocks

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A shepherd is out tending a flock when a presence appears above. It descends from the sky and communicates vital information. It may sound like a nativity scene, but for an increasing number of farmers it’s a daily occurrence – and that celestial being is a drone.

Corey Lambeth, a New Zealand farmer, originally purchased a drone for photography, but he quickly realised the device had more practical applications. “I thought ‘I’ll just give it a nudge on the sheep and see what that goes like’ and it actually worked out quite well,” he says. Now, Lambeth has been using a drone “pretty much as another dog” to muster sheep for three years.

New Zealand, where terrain can be rough and mountainous, is “perfect for drone technology … They have this purpose for them,” says Sam Watson, a drone pilot based in Australia.

“It’s a significant time-saving when mustering,” says Jason Rentoul, a farmer based in Marlborough, New Zealand, who has been using drones with herds of sheep, deer and cattle for three years. “Some musters might take four men with a minimum of two dogs each, and now [with a drone] you can do that with two men and considerably less time.”

It took a fair bit of experimentation to get to this point. Rentoul purchased his first drone after watching a video of another farmer using one to muster deer on YouTube. In the early days, he lost drones to water damage and once, memorably, while trying to transport a bottle of wine. He tied the bottle to the drone with fishing line, but it would “swing side to side”. The drone would try and correct for the wine’s movement “and the bottle would swing one way and the drone would try to balance” making the wine swing faster and faster, until he eventually lost control altogether.

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