Cracking the science behind sheep dogs' herding skills may pave the way for robots that can herd human crowds but fourth-generation farmer James Sheppard says he would still back his sheepdog Tess over any mechanical mutt.
Researchers from Swansea University hit the headlines yesterday after they announced that they had worked out that sheep dogs use two simple rules – collecting sheep when they are dispersed, and driving them forward once they are bunched together.
They fitted a flock of sheep and their dog with backpacks with highly sensitive GPS devices to monitor all the movements and have been able to draw up a a formula that could be used to programme a robot-shepherd to herd people, for instance to direct them out of a smoke-filled room if they could not see the exit. Another suggested use for the technology is to gather robots themselves back together after they have been out gathering information in the environment.
Aptly-named Mr Sheppard, who farms sheep and cattle on the the Poulton Farm Estate, near Marlborough is astonished by the news.
"It's interesting that people have spent so much time on this, haven't they got anything better to do?" he asked. "I would say you would have to be mighty clever to work out what a sheep dog is thinking about.
"Sheep don't always react in the same way, and sheep dogs do a lot of work with their eyes. There are sheep dogs that can lift a flock of sheep because of their eye power more than the fact that they are a dog.
"When our sheep dog was small he could walk into a field and the sheep would be immediately aware of it but with another they took no notice. You get some sheep that won't be moved."
Mr Sheppard admitted that his wife, Deborah deals with their flock of 150 Scottish mules more than he does, but his knowledge of the livestock and their dog, Tess, means he could say with confidence: "If it came down to a test between a robot or a sheep dog I would put my money on the sheep dog.
"I think the most worrying thing about this is that they don't think human beings have got the intelligence to get out of a situation on their own without the help of a robot.
"We are expected to put our health and well-being in the hands of non-humans – and what would be supposed to happen when the batteries ran out?"