CIEL | Meet the Scientist

Professor Lucy Asher

Professor Animal Behaviour Informatics

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What project/s are you currently working on?
I’m working on an array of projects to use technology to identify health and welfare issues in animals. Mostly I work on chickens but also on domestic dogs, with projects in both these species.

Within our poultry research we are using: thermal cameras to monitor feather coverage; cameras, microphones and thermal cameras to understand smothering in laying hens; and acoustics to detect stress in chickens in a ‘Smartcoop’. These projects all have different contexts ranging from developing welfare indictors for use in broiler (meat) production, to understanding abnormal behaviour in free-range laying hens, to supporting smallholders to rear poultry in rural Africa. When animals are stressed there are signals, either through communication with others such as vocalisations, or other physical indicators, such as changes in feather cover. In our lab we focus on understanding the biology of these changes and then finding simple ways to measure them using technology.

What capability are you drawing on to deliver the research?
At Newcastle we have some of the best facilities in the country for researching digital agriculture. Specifically, we have the CIEL Centre for Digital Innovation Applied to Livestock, referred to as the C-DIAL. Within C-DIAL we have pens which allow us to apply a wide range of technology and sensors (e.g. standard and 3D imaging, thermal cameras, hyperspectral cameras, environmental sensors etc) to longer-term studies of animals.

Alongside this we have a state-of-the-art gait lab which allows us to track, with high precision and in three-dimensions, any point on an animal’s body. The gait lab is used to measure really early and subtle changes in movements associated with lameness, and can also help us find subtle body language associated with negative welfare states like stress. We use the C-DIAL as a test bed and validation centre for simple technology that we can take out to real farms.

In addition to the C-DIAL, we have two purpose-built poultry buildings which house chickens in small groups, and a porcine research unit which can be used for precision feeding studies using NEDAP feeders. On Newcastle’s two University farms we have both commercial dairy and pork production systems.

What would be your ideal research project, assuming no barriers!
This is a difficult question because I am always brimming with ideas I’d love to test. In terms of research that would make a difference in the real world, I’d like to be able to develop digital diagnostics for a range of health and welfare indicators. To date, most technology focuses on one, or perhaps two, health and welfare issues, but to be really informative to the producer a system should be able to earlier identify a range of health and welfare problems. So I’d like to design a system that could suggest when a problem was likely to occur and what that problem was, using the behaviour and physical indicators of the animals to do so.

How did you arrive at doing what you do now?
I studied at the University of Bristol and also Edinburgh before coming to Newcastle to undertake a PhD. During my PhD I became very interested in patterns of behaviour and felt the standard practice of manually recording each type of behaviour didn’t capture the complexity of what an animal was doing. I started using new methods and those borrowed from other areas of science (physics, maths, engineering) to measure patterns in behaviour.

After gaining my doctorate in animal welfare, I worked in the veterinary epidemiology department at the Royal Veterinary College, London, developing my statistical skills on a project quantifying individual differences in welfare in hens.

Next, I moved to the University of Nottingham Vet School, where much of my focus was devoted to a large epidemiological project on guide dogs to enable earlier identification of, based on behaviour, dogs which were not cut out for guiding the blind and partially sighted.

When an opportunity came up to return to Newcastle I took it, first re-joining the University as a Senior Research Fellow. For me Newcastle has an excellent balance of stimulating scientists in animal behaviour, access to some excellent engineering and computing departments, and first-rate facilities for the research which interests me. It seems that Newcastle University values me too, as in 2020 I was promoted to Professor.

How has digital technology changed how we think about animal behaviour & welfare?
Digital technology has opened a window into an individual animal’s experience that we could not have captured otherwise.

I study chickens which are kept in flocks of up to 80,000 individuals. Using non-digital methods you cannot hope to keep track of what one animal does in such a large group. Technology allows us to monitor one individual to whole flock movements. This is hugely important because we have been able to find patterns in those experiences which would be masked otherwise.

We can detect behaviour and welfare indicators which are not apparent to our eyes, such as subtle behaviour changes or thermal signatures in response to stress. We can combine many different digital measures for new insight. Perhaps most excitingly, digital technology is revealing how ‘individual’ our livestock animals are. We find consistent and distinct behaviour performed by an individual animal, even the humble chicken has its own personality and habits.

Find out more about our Founding Research Member, Newcastle University.

Lucy Asher | CIEL