Swansea University researchers discover Nitrous oxide from urine patches is no laughing matter

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Professor Rory Wilson and Dr Andrew King from the Department of Biosciences at Swansea University have been awarded a grant from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) with researchers from Bangor University, Rothamsted Research, Texas A&M University-Kingsville and Leicester University

The grant will fund a project that seeks to explore the interaction between sheep’s grazing behaviour, urine composition and subsequent nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from urine patches. 

Nitrous oxide is commonly known as ‘laughing gas’ and is currently used both in anaesthetics and as a ‘legal high’.  However, it is also a greenhouse gas produced in the soil by micro-organisms and is 180 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas, molecule for molecule, than CO2. Urine patches in pastures created by grazing livestock are recognised as ‘hot-spots’ for N2O production and emission.

The new NERC funded Upland-N2O project will explore the effects of grazing and livestock movement in upland areas of Wales where sheep have the opportunity to range and select herbage. The team expect the sheep’s foraging decisions to influence both urine composition and subsequent N2O emissions. Moreover, where urine is deposited by the sheep could also influence emissions, because of variations in soil pH, water balance and local climate.

The project will be based at Bangor University’s farm where the team will collate ‘layers’ of information believed to affect N2O production in soils, and subsequent emission, e.g. climate, topography, soil properties, vegetation composition, and urine composition.

Using cutting-edge animal tracking technology developed by theSwanseaLaboratory for Animal Movement at SwanseaUniversity, Professor Wilson and Dr King aim to understand - and then predict - where and when sheep choose to forage, and where they deposit urine.

Professor Wilson has been designing and using technology to track animal movement and behaviour for more than 20 years, and Dr King has used fine-resolution GPS to understand sheep movements and behaviour in previous work. Professor Wilson said: "Our state-of-the-art sensors will allow us to track where the sheep go, where they graze, and importantly, where they urinate".

Dr King said: "I have previously studied sheep flocking behaviour to understand how sheep respond to one another and to threats they encounter. It is an exciting challenge to now combine sheep behavioural data with environmental data to predict spatial-temporal patterns of N2O emissions across different upland areas in Wales."

In line with this research, applicants are invited for the position of Post-Doctoral Research Assistant (PDRA) in Movement Ecology in the Department of Biosciences, College of Science, Swansea University.