AUCHNERRAN FARM, at Logie Coldstone, on Deeside, which is tenanted by the the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, is home to the new EU-LIFE funded Laser Fence project.

Led by Dr Alex Mason, from Liverpool John Moores University, the project aims to effectively use lasers to scare away mammals, in the same way that they are already being used to deter birds.

The targeted mammals include rabbits, rats, sheep and Roe deer. If it can be made to work, the laser system could provide an alternative to shooting wildlife and therefore preserving it, whilst also being able to run a farm efficiently, with the wildlife inhabiting the land at the same time, but keeping clear of the bits that farmers target with the laser fence.

Unlike other methods of controlling wildlife, the lasers are not dangerous, although they could be damaging if there is direct exposure of the eye to the beam, or if they were pointed into the sky, as pilots could be dazzled, so precautions must be taken in that respect.

Where they are used to control birds, the lasers are simply pointed at an area of ground that the birds frequent on a regular basis. The light, which is currently green coloured, but may need to be changed to be effective with mammals, is moved in various directions across the ground, and this spooks the birds enough so that they stay away from that particular area.

According to Dr Dave Parish, who is head of lowland research for the GWCT, the project has gathered a lot of interest: "The project was positively received by everyone who came along to the launch earlier on this year, including our neighbours here at Auchnerran, and everyone was keen to hear all about it.

"They were also impressed by the demonstration we gave to them, in which Joep Everaers, of the manufacturers of the device, Bird Control Group, managed to easily disperse a flock of thrushes simply using one of the hand-held devices. We just hope that rabbits will be as obliging!"

Trials are currently taking place to determine whether these lasers can be applied to control mammals, and, if so, the aim is to use the farm as an example of how wildlife and agriculture can thrive both efficiently and in harmony.

Auchnerran occupies 1030 acres of hill-edge land, and is located on the edge of a bowl-shaped geographical feature known as the Howe of Cromar. The farm is highly typical mixed arable, grass and wooded farmland, 20% arable/ploughable, 30% pasture, 40% rough grazing and 10% wood/other.

The farm lies adjacent to 12,300 acres of heather moorland, which is owned by Dinnet Estate, and is summer grazed by Auchnerran's sheep flock, which currently sits at a head of 1200.

Dr Parish explained his hopes for expansion: "At the moment we have around 1200 ewes, but we hope to have increased this number to 1500 over the next few years – although that is the maximum number we aim to go to.

"Part of our lease here states that we must maintain the ground, and ensure that we put sheep out onto the hill during the summer, so we are doing that every summer."

Agricultural short limited duration tenancies have been secured over both the farmland and moorland grazing, and these SLDTs include the right to claim all available subsidy – basic payment, and other support for maintaining sheep grazing to benefit the moor’s conservation. In future, the team also hope to introduce a herd of cattle for commercial operation at the farm.

This type of farming is typical of 36% of Scottish farmland, and the work here will also be relevant to those who farm the 3.3million ha of grass-dominated agriculture in southwest and northwest England, and Northern Ireland.

In Scotland, this type of farmland can be home to much game and wildlife, but is coming under increasing economic pressure with consequences for the wildlife – for example, 15 years ago, grey partridge were common but are now increasingly absent, and lapwing and curlew numbers are also declining sharply, which gave this project a very strong purpose.

Dr Parish explained: "We want to demonstrate what it is that is necessary to retain the wildlife we have, and how we might actively manage biodiversity back into Scottish upland farms."

Two years have been spent examining the wildlife at Auchnerran, with a report due to be published in spring 2017. After some examination, it was estimated that there are around 20,500 rabbits present at Auchnerran, a number which is almost impossible to cull.

"There is a very clear distinction where the rabbits are grazing on Auchnerran, and it is very difficult to control this, so it is our hope that we will manage to do that using the laser method," said Dr Parish.

"There are also huge numbers of waders on the farm, with between 40 and 50 pairs of lapwings, 10 to 15 pairs of curlews, 20 to 25 pairs of oystercatchers, 18 displaying male woodcocks as well as a number of blackbirds and thrushes.

"Obviously we want to preserve this wildlife, and therefore the lasers are a perfect example of how to control it while also maintaining the farm."

In terms of ground quality at Auchnerran, currently it is poor but on its way to improvement, and Dr Parish hopes to see a dramatic change within two years, which GWCT aims to do with the subsidies the farm receives.

Although the laser project has currently taken precedence at Auchnerran, the organisation is always looking for new ways to control the wildlife and conservation at the set up.

Asked about the future, Dr Parish explained: "If our plan doesn't work, and the farm doesn't become efficient within five years, then we will have to pull the project, but it is my belief that we will be able to regenerate the land, and also show farmers how easy it is to run a farm effectively whilst also maintaining and controlling the wildlife.

"There are just so many different aspects to the farm and we hope to be able to use it as the perfect example of integrating conservation within farming."

Although the farm was taken on by GWCT around two years ago, the organisation was only approached by Liverpool John Moores University last year to take on the project. Dr Parish added: "Liverpool were aware of us, and the fact we wanted to create an efficient farm which also integrated wildlife, and they had already started a project much like ours in England, and so they offered for us to try the lasers, which we accepted.

"Our trials will continue, and we hope to have evidence of how well the project is working, and how efficient Auchnerran has become over the following years."