Wildlife Fence-Death Syndrome

In many areas where animal migrations can be large, seasonal and visible, as on the prairies and plains of Wyoming, Utah and Montana, wildlife-friendly fencing is a necessity, an art, and a science.

Many species of wildlife undergo seasonal movements to seek food, water or breeding habitat, and their migrations make for great Discovery Channel viewing.  Ski slopes are shut down to make way for migrating elk.

On the other hand, wildlife in wooded suburban tracts in the Northeast such as we have in the Philadelphia area make mini-migrations on a daily basis on established trails for the same purpose, without much attention being paid, because these smaller patterns of natural and instinctive behavior are not as visible or press-worthy until the animals are struck by cars, or become impaled on, wedged  into, or entangled in fencing.

One such event, occurred in my neighborhood last fall, and involved the struggle, suffering and death of a white-tailed doe entrapped by a fence too tall to leap over and uprights spaced too close for her to get her hindquarters through.

I warn you, my photograph is an unsettling sight. The fence that killed her (see photo on right) is similar to many seen in photographs of suburban wildlife deaths yet continues to be used, sometimes in blatant disregard of local ordinances, the penalty for which is paid by wildlife simply following ancient herd movements necessary to their survival.

We are the interlopers, not they.

Fences are, however,  often necessary, and the wholesale banning of fencing would create another set of problems, but we can work to reduce the cost to wildlife if we take an example from our western counterparts and design fences in such a way as to permit the life of the land to continue.

These safeguards are especially needed in areas with known high wildlife traffic as near stream corridors such as Manor Creek. which borders one perimeter of my property.

Animals typically have difficulty negotiating fences that have close spacing between uprights, are too high to jump over, to low to crawl under, or otherwise create an impenetrable barrier.  Close spacing between verticals increases the risk of wing or leg entanglement such as occurred with the doe I photographed.  At the very least, the death sentence of a barrier fence can be relieved by allowing periodic openings for the movement of wildlife.

We must begin somewhere to balance the needs and demands of both human and wild populations, enforce whatever local fence ordinances are currently on the books, and spare animals the agony and death caused by entanglement in illegal fences.

While the best fence for wildlife is no fence at all, fences are a necessity in many cases.  Depending on the community, fences must contain or exclude livestock, protect crops, beehives, gardens, play yards, dog runs and other property.  In some cases however there are good alternatives to fences.

There are many creative ways to define boundaries, discourage trespass, or maintain privacy.  A line of trees, shrubs, and other vegetation can be used to mark a boundary, screen for privacy, beautify your landscape, and provide additional food and cover for wildlife.

The areas that wildlife choose as travel corridors are often the same places that you would want to preserve in a natural state to retain the scenic amenities and aesthetic value of your property.  You could also consider marking property boundaries with signs, flexible fiberglass or plastic boundary posts spaced at intervals without crosswires.  If you only fence the portions of your property that you need to protect, you’ll be saving time, money and wildlife.

To prevent access by vehicles, consider using bollards (short stout barrier posts).  They can define a driveway or parking area, or edge a lawn or field.

Posts can be spaced closely together or farther apart and connected with chain, cable or rail.  Bollards can be made of wood, concrete, brick, stone, cast iron, aluminum or steel.

A row of evenly space boulders serves the same function.

The eastern fixation on pruned lawns and decorative details means that many of the western fence solutions might be too functional in appearance for some sensibilities, but all this means is that there’s an opportunity for someone to come up with and market a well-designed, competitvely priced wildlife friendly fence solution.

Because the argument for living in synchronicity with the environment is so compelling, my city fathers are still unsure as to how it was that  they permitted me to establish a full-throttle meadow where a sweeping front lawn, and sometimes fence, is normally established.  Gosh but it’s pretty.

Rather than keep wildlife out, I choose to invite wildlife  in.  And so the deer visit now and then in twos and threes, have a couple of nips at my native plants, and then move on along their faint, unobstructed  ancestral paths.

Portions of the descriptions of fencing solutions were taken from “Fencing with Wildlife in Mind” by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

© 2012, Christina Kobland. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Christina, when I put in my pond I had to fence in my yard. Much like a pool around young children, it was a bad accident waiting to happen. But I put in a low picket. Believe me nothing keeps out the wildlife. Deer jump it, rabbits squeeze through and under…The picture at the beginning is so awful. We have always had wildlife friendly fences, when we have owned houses with fences. My neighborhood has fewer fences than most and the deer and turkey runs are still possible. Great reminder though to be careful and think about wildlife in all we do..
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..End of the Month Review-January

    • says

      Donna– Yes, sometimes fences are unavoidable, but like you said, with a little thought for the animals we share this planet with, we can help prevent their undue suffering. Thanks for writing…

  2. says

    Unfortunately the East Coast suffer a man-made deer overpopulation such that deer fences are required in a lot of areas to keep EVERYTHING from being destroyed. (In my area, the carrying capacity is estimated at about a dozen deer to the square mile, with the actual number being 80+ per.) It’s a huge problem out here, and there’s a limit to what gardeners can do—one hard spring, and they’ll eat everything in the yard down to nubs, “deer-resistant” plants and all.

    There’s no ideal solution, sad to say—the system is so far out of balance that it’ll take great extremes to right it. In the meantime, even our local native-only, super-eco-friendly botanical garden has a massive deer fence.
    UrsulaV recently posted..Awwwww yeah!

    • says

      Hi Ursula–

      This article is more about trying to prevent needless suffering than it is about the deer overpopulation (and predator underpopulation) issue. There are right and wrong ways to fence, and most involve common sense. Spikes on top of 6 foot fences, for instance, serve no purpose and often snag animals trying to jump them. It is gut wrenching to see.

      My goal is to bring awareness to needless suffering by pointing out what can happen with a poorly designed fence, and hopefully those who fence for ornamental reasons will think twice about wasting the money.

      I personally avoid fences at all costs, and protect new plantings by individually enclosing new plants until their growth exceeds the browse line. That way the wildlife traffic is not impeded.


      • says

        No, indeed—just trying to point out that Western style open fencing is sadly not an option for some of us. (Two or three deer passing through would be lovely…it’s the forty-seven that come after them that are problematic!)
        UrsulaV recently posted..Awwwww yeah!

  3. says

    I appreciate where you are going with this post. Where I live in the Santa Monica Mtns, CA, we have flocks of quail come to visit.. wonderful! I at first thought about fencing for the dogs, but after taking time to observe, I learned that the quail were following an ancestral route. So if I just leave their paths open, I can enjoy watching them from my garden :-)
    Kathy @nativegardener recently posted..Anna’s Hummingbirds, the Hummingbirds of Winter

    • says

      Hi Kathy,
      Well , you made my day with this comment! We humans are always coming up with ways to complicate things. Sometimes the best solutions are those that take the least time, money and use of our precious resources. In your case, the perfect solution was to leave well enough alone, and enjoy the animals traveling their natural migratory routes. I applaud you!

      I ‘fenced in’ my dog with a three acre invisible fence (underground) which works beautifully. He and the wild turkey, fox, deer etc. have learned to coexist quite well.

    • says

      That’s sad. Googling ‘animals caught in fences’ produces some chilling results. I really hope people focus on innovative solutions that don’t restrict wildlife’s movement, and also don’t entangle them when they try to slide through, under or over.

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