The Ungulate Problem

The investigation carried out by Natech to verify the market potential for ultrasonic devices begins with a certain fact. For some years, the populations of wild ungulates in Italy and throughout Europe have been steadily increasing, both in terms of distribution and size. While this situation has brought an overall enrichment to ecosystems it has also led to increasing interaction between these species and human activity. Crop damage caused by ungulates is becoming a significant issue, especially given its economic impact. According to 2004 estimates provided by the Ungulates Database (Carnevali et al., 2010), the total compensation that could have been paid out to cover the damage caused by ungulates amounted to approximately €8,900,000; yet from data available on the difference between the amount ascertained and the amount settled, it emerges that, on average in 2004, the amount paid was 85.56% of the ascertained damage. Considering this percentage and extrapolating it to the national level, the total figure for the damage caused by ungulates in 2004 is about €10,300,000. According to a more recent estimate based on Eurispes data, in Italy alone the damage caused by wildlife amounts to about €70,000,000 a year, of which about €58,000,000 is caused by ungulates. By analysing the impact by individual species, it emerges that 70% of the damage is attributable to wild boar, about 20% to roe deer and deer and the remaining 10% to other animals. Considering just the Italian agricultural sector, we note that the three most heavily affected crops represent 72.10% of the entire domestic production (vines, cereals, oleoproteaginous crops) with a total production area of 2,300,903 hectares (source: ISTAT, 2013). Another agricultural sector which is strongly at risk is that of horticultural production. 2013 ISTAT data shows an area in Italy of open-air vegetable cultivation of 418,852 hectares which is also heavily affected by wild boar and roe deer, resulting in significant damage and losses since the products, even if not completely eaten, are no longer considered fit – and therefore saleable – for human consumption. For several reasons, for some years now, ungulates have also been pushed towards inhabited areas and even inside towns and cities to attack small vegetable gardens and ornamental gardens, and to devastate lawns as they search for invertebrates (such as earthworms) and water during the summer. It is not surprising then, that for these reasons, many of the 408 golf courses in the Italian Golf Federation have been particularly severely affected. It is, furthermore, dangerous for these animals to be in close contact with humans with several, widely-reported deaths in recent years and numerous traffic accidents involving animals. In fact, cases of collisions between vehicles and wildlife represent a considerable problem in Italy and constitute about 2% of all accidents. In 2-5% of cases involving injury, in 0.03-0.5% of cases involving the death of one or more of the vehicle occupants (between 1995-2000 there were 76 victims) and thousands of injured victims. In the first half of 2017 in Italy, for example, there were 75 major incidents, with 10 victims and 91 serious injuries. 45% of the vehicles involved in accidents with ungulates are seriously damaged with average costs amounting to approximately €2,000 per car.

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Escape devices are designed to protect large areas such as vineyards, golf courses and horticultural land but they are also suitable for small vegetable and ornamental gardens. A sensor is built into the device that detects an animal (or animals) and a generator emits a series of ultrasonic pulses to repel the ungulates (wild boar, roe deer and fallow deer). In addition, on Escape Plus devices, a diagnostic unit checks that the device is operating correctly and the battery charge. The data collected is sent via a low power wireless network to a gateway allowing real-time operational management of the device through a web interface (through a computer, smartphone, tablet, etc.). The Escape Plus device does not need to be connected to the mains electricity supply since it has an autonomous power supply: "Energy Harvesting" from a photovoltaic panel and buffer battery allows the device to operate for 48 hours on each charge while the Basic model will be connected to the mains electricity supply. In order to avoid the risk that the animals might become accustomed to the ultrasound emissions, the device emits ultrasound randomly and multiple waves at different frequencies, thereby creating a polyphonic emission which has a notably disagreeable dissonance for the animals.

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Implementing the Escape project (Plus and Basic) took three years of design and research at the CNIT laboratories (UdR University of Pisa – Department of Information Engineering) and included trials in a controlled environment in the Migliarino San Rossore Massaciuccoli Regional Park in Pisa and field trials at prestigious vineyards in the Sienese and Florentine Chianti area. The device produced excellent results in terms of both effectiveness and reliability and tests showed that the different species of ungulate (wild boar, roe deer and fallow deer) do not show any evidence of becoming accustomed to the ultrasound even after several months of trial. The research team was helped by the contributions from faunists, bioacoustic experts, veterinarians and biologists from various Italian university departments.

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