Each year, some 100 000 fawns are killed by mowing machines, but help is on its way
The sound of the drone is like the humming of a giant swarm of bees. Anita Weimann holds it up in the air, her arm outstretched. The small machine looks something like a kite with eight buzzing rotors fixed onto two rods positioned in a V. A long, black rechargeable battery and a tiny camera are suspended from its center. Weimann, 38, releases the drone as she might a falcon, and the device zips off into the blue sky above a meadow of tall grass near Frauenstetten, north of Augsburg, in southern Germany. It halts for a moment 80 meters up, turns its nose in a northeasterly direction and starts to fly zigzags across the field. The fawn rescue mission has begun.
It’s a warm morning in June and the sun has just appeared over the horizon. Weimann is already perspiring because she’s in a hurry. Farmer Heinz Mengele has said he’ll be coming to mow this afternoon. Mother deer have been sighted in the area recently, which means their fawns, well hidden in the grass, are now in mortal danger. When the mowing machine approaches, the fawns follow their natural instinct and flatten themselves against the ground. As they are only a few days old, their legs are still pretty wobbly, so they don’t try to run away. In fact, they aren’t able to run properly until they are about six weeks old.
Weimann strides over to a folding table at the edge of the field and looks hard at her laptop. She is agricultural advisor to the Bavarian hunting association and has been testing the drone for some weeks. On the screen, she follows in real time what the thermal imaging camera transmits from above. The meadow is depicted as a black area because the grass is still cool. Weimann is looking out for light-colored patches on the image, for hot spots that could come from fawns, because their temperature is warmer. Weimann gets increasingly anxious with every passing minute. It’s nearly half past nine, the sun is climbing higher all the time and the meadow is growing warmer. “There!” she exclaims, and clicks a pale spot on the screen – then another and another, more and more of them all the time. A program determines the geodata for each spot. A quarter of an hour later, the drone’s survey is complete and the coordinates of all the pale spots have been determined. Weimann quickly connects a GPS device to her laptop to transfer the geodata. Then, eyes glued to the device in her hand and its compass arrow indicating the position of a hot spot, Weimann runs out into the field with a handful of helpers in tow, one of whom is Christoph Kunad, 46, a ranger. The closer they get, the more gingerly they move through the tall grass because the coordinates are only accurate up to eight meters, and the fawns are often so well hidden, it would be easy to trample them.
Now I can mow with a clear conscience
“Over here!,” yells Kunad. He parts the grass and gently slips his hands under the fawn cowering on the ground. He lifts it up and cradles it like a newborn baby – saved! The baby deer’s eyes are alert and wide with bewilderment. It struggles briefly, then nestles into Kunad, who beams. “It doesn’t look more than eight days old,” he says. He has rescued quite a few young animals from farm machinery. According to the German Wildlife Foundation, around 100 000 fawns fall victim to mowing machines in German meadows every year. After foxes, the greatest threat comes from agricultural machinery.
Until now, rescuing fawns was a difficult undertaking for ranger Kunad. For more than three decades, he and his friends spent long hours tramping through fields in early summer. “The drone is brilliant,” he says, setting the fawn back down in the grass and placing a laundry basket over it. We hear branches snapping in a plot of woodland nearby: The doe has been observing us and now retreats back into the woods, but she will not give up her young. At the next opportunity, she will try to hide it somewhere else in the meadow, which is what the upended laundry basket is intended to prevent.
The drone Anita Weimann is demonstrating today is still at the trial stage. The Technical University in Munich, the agricultural machinery maker Class, the industrial electronics company Isa Industrieelektronik and the German Aerospace Center have been collaborating on the development of a marketable version since 2012. The project, entitled “Wildretter” (wild animal rescuers), is funded by the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture to the tune of some three million euros. The aim is to make most of the rescue procedure automatic. As soon as the rescue team knows where a farmer plans to mow, they download an aeriel photo from Google Earth and the precise coordinates of the area in question, and a program suggests the most battery-efficient flight route. The drone does have a remote control, but it’s only intended for emergency use, for instance if the drone is attacked by an eagle.
“The Oktokopter will be ready for operation by the end of this year,” promises Sebastian Krug, 41, project coordinator at Projektbüro Zentec. He talks of great demand for the device, especially from hunting cooperatives, who want to help save fawns out in the fields. Drones like these are fast becoming a universal tool in agriculture because from the air, storm damage is easier to assess, and fruit farmers can see much more quickly whether the crop in a plantation will soon be ready to pick.
Shortly before ten, Weimann sends the drone up once again. She wants to investigate some of the hot spots from nearer the ground. But conditions are growing tougher as the sun climbs higher and the contrasts on the screen become fainter. One of the spots turns out to be a molehill, another an anthill. But then she and the team find a second fawn. It is 15 days old and also ends up under the basket. The rescuers now have to wait for the farmer to arrive. The animals need to be released within a period of three hours so that their mothers can suckle them.
By afternoon, all has quieted down at the meadow. Kunad is waiting for the farmer to call. “It’s often like tilting at windmills,” he explains. Too many farmers wait too long before informing him that they are planning to mow. And in good weather, they all head out into the fields at once. When the drone has been perfected, everything will be easier, he hopes. Then he and his fellow rangers will be able to find and eartag the fawns in plenty of time, so that later, they can be located and removed from a meadow in a matter of minutes.
The farmer has sent his son to mow the meadow. Jürgen Mengele, 19, will one day take over the farm. “I’ve been looking for fawns ever since I was a boy,” he says: “Now I know I can mow with a clear conscience.”
Meanwhile, Anton Demharter, 63, a ranger friend of Kunad’s, is carrying the fawns to safety in a vegetable field thirty meters away. They won’t be returned to the meadow after mowing, where they would be easy prey for foxes. The does find their young calling among the vegetables later. Demharter strokes the fawns one last time, then releases them saying: “Take care.”