LASERS have already proven effective in scaring birds away from high value crops – and research is now focussed on adapting the technology to deter ground-approach farm pests, not least rats, potentially reducing the need for poison baits.

It has been estimated that damage caused by rats on farms cost the UK farming industry between £14 and £28 million per annum. Back in 2016, with that cost in mind, Liverpool John Moores University, along with seven other partners from Scotland, The Netherlands and Spain, started a demonstration project of the concept, called LIFE Laser Fence, partially funded by the EU Life+ programme, with a total budget of over €3 million.

Since then, the Agrilaser system developed by the Bird Control Group has proved effective in the air, scaring birds away from fields, reducing crop damage and wildlife exposure to pesticides. That success is now feeding into the LaserFence project, with specialists from both BCG and LJMU working on developing new light beams with alternative characteristics, including colour and modulation, to suit ground-based species' varying perceptions of light.

“We expect to identify which light characteristics are best suited for each species and adjust our light beams accordingly," said BCG chief executive Steinar Henskes. "For example, first trials with the new wavelengths showed different responses from animals. For instance, blue beams may be more effective than red beams.”

The LaserFence project is also evaluating safe working procedures for the devices, and monitoring animal welfare – although to date the project has not observed any distress in the animals to which the LaserFence beam has been moved towards. Safety systems have been introduced that shut the laser down if it projects outside of its installed boundaries, stopping the system directing its laser into areas where people might be present.

Project manager of BCG, engineer Joep Everaers, said: “The new systems now can be compared to modern smartphones, which can identify the device´s angle and turn the system off in case it presents a potential dazzle hazard to the user and the people around. The system automatically detects when it is directing within its correct boundaries and switches the laser on again, which allows for robust engineering of the system for autonomous operation concerning safety."

The project is now entering a new phase involving extensive testing of its functionality with different types of animals. To meet the needs of farmers from its contributing countries, the research consortium is trialling the system as a field protection against deer, rabbits, and wild boar, and rodents, such as rats, squirrels and mice.

In addition, specific trials will be undertaken in isolated barns in the UK and Scotland to evaluate the system´s efficiency in scaring rats away from buildings. If these prove successful, the food production chain would be able to reduce its reliance upon highly toxic rodenticides.

LaserFence project manager, Dr Martin Sharp, is optimistic that the newly developed light systems will develop more reliable results: “From our extensive trials with the current light beam, we are aware of excellent results for birds, but for rabbits and other pest animals there is a variation in response. We hope that with the new light beam modules we can increase consistency in the deterrent effect and offer an effective and sustainable solution to limit crop damage due to intrusion of animals.”

The project is due to finish by the end of 2019. The final results will be communicated during a dedicated conference in Liverpool at the end of this year. It is possible that a project extension will be sought to allow more trials over the winter of 2019 / 2020 and into the following spring.

For in-depth news and views on Scottish agriculture, see this Friday’s issue of The Scottish Farmer or visit