Balancing Farming, Fencing and Wild Game
(Picture via a game camera out at the family farm by Entwistle a few days before this article was published. Note the natural unfenced wildlife corridor leading through the hay field. The elk travel through every few weeks and are able to get to their next destination stress free. Other food sources are plentiful enough they barely bother with the hay.)
Whether you are a nature lover, a farmer, a hunter or any combination of the three, balancing the needs of the farmer with the needs of the wildlife is paramount. The farmer does not have to wage war on deer by banishing them from their entire parcel because of potential crop losses. The hunter can be humane, ethical and sustainable to help erase bad stereotypes and work with farmers and nature lovers alike. The nature lover can also be a farmer or hunter, or at least positively support the other two in good land and wildlife management practices. Everything from proper fencing to allowing for ‘wild’ corridors will benefit everyone in the long run and here I will show how everyone can indeed get along and prosper.
The value of wild game on your land
Wild game and other wildlife add biodiversity to a plot of land. To someone that grows canola, hay or potatoes that may not mean anything at first, but dig a little deeper and we find a chain reaction that comes back around. Deer, elk and moose browse and graze different plant materials which then get processed into fertilizer. Twigs, water plants, lichens and mosses that normally would just sit there or take longer to decompose if left alone, now become far more valuable to a farmer sooner as manure gets spread around. This constant munching also helps keep plant species in check so they do not overtake farm land as readily (Think how quickly aspen, willow and wild rose spread. Without wildlife this spreading would happen at an even faster rate! *Note: I personally love these native species for reclamation but a farmer with a cultivated plot could become annoyed with having to till or brush hog the edges of their land constantly if some of this vegetation were in the ‘wrong’ spot). These animals also attract predators. A farmer may be quick to jump to the conclusion that this is bad because they may experience more losses of livestock to these same predators. Realize though that many of these predators focus on sick or old animals which helps maintain healthy populations (and can therefore reduce pathogen spread between wild and domestic animals). They also get rid of a significant amount of smaller vermin like voles, mice and ground squirrels. This is a plus to a farmer trying to prevent grain spoilage, quality depletion, spread of pathogens, and holes and mounds in fields that can shorten the lifespan of farm equipment. Proper fencing (which I will address shortly) can be strategically placed to protect more vulnerable livestock. Once a balance in the ecosystem is achieved you will find predators to be far less of an issue as they will generally focus on easier wild game and as long as easy to travel corridors are provided, they will spread themselves between multiple pieces of land anyway, so they most likely won’t be on just yours all of the time. Removing a predator generally encourages a new one to take over the now empty territory. Keeping the same resident predator population allows a farmer to build a relationship with them – learn their habits, train them to boundaries and other things that can cultivate more harmonious living between species. Whether or not you eat meat, one must appreciate the lower carbon footprint of wild game compared to intensively farmed commercial livestock. I am not trying to pick on cattle farmers. Rather I encourage them and other commercial producers to get away from intensive farming practices and use more ‘wild’ methods in their operations like rotational grazing, grass feeding, selective access to natural water bodies and sustainable numbers of livestock on pastures. If you do eat meat, humanely and sustainably harvested wild game is lean and converts vegetation that would otherwise not be utilized (willow, water plants etc.) quite efficiently into protein. This protein source can augment beef, pork etc. to help reduce food shortages and the overall carbon footprint. Now that we’ve established that wild game can add value to farm land let’s look at how to achieve this.
Wildlife and farm friendly fencing
Ungulates are generally creatures of habit. This means they prefer to use the same water sources and trails and they will travel their normal routes at similar times of year, month, week and even day. This means with a little surveillance one can determine high traffic areas vs ones not used at all, or if an area is only used seasonally (perhaps during breeding or birthing times). If a farmer has sensitive crops or vulnerable livestock (poultry, sheep or young stock for example), they can selectively fence off specific areas to protect these animals from predators or possible transmission of pathogens from wild game. In these areas 7-8 ft high visibility game fence can be used (chain link of sufficient
height can be used as well but is more costly) . Use coloured plastic mesh specifically labelled ‘game fencing’ and only use smooth wire as top strands or strengtheners that are taped, marked at various points with flagging, or covered at various points with sections of PVC piping to ensure visibility and and animal safety. Plastic game fence may not be as eco-friendly or as strong as page wire, barbwire or high tensile wire but can at least be recycled at some facilities and has give should an animal hit it. It is more difficult to get stuck in and will not hang up and injure an animal so easily should a foot or horns get stuck in it. Domestic and wild animals alike have suffered after fighting through a fence only to wind up with their head or legs becoming entangled and possibly cut through by constricting sharp wire. If not found right away it is a slow agonizing death for sure. Even birds have been known to lose limbs or get decapitated by flying into an unseen fence. High visibility electric rope type fencing can be used as well but keep in mind, it too must have the top strand at the 7-8 ft mark if keeping out wild game is a must. Strands need to be no
more than 10 inches apart including the bottom strand off the ground or some wild animals (as well as wild and domestic young) may go through anyway and perhaps get struck on the wrong side. Utilizing game proof but also game friendly barriers in areas off wild game’s beaten path so to speak, aids to prevent blocked off travel routes for wildlife as well as reducing injury or death due to panicked animals trying to get through to other separated members or when in pursuit by predators. Leaving non-vulnerable areas open reduces fencing costs to farmers and gives more areas for wild animals to be able to move within. In other areas where fence pressure isn’t as high for livestock (adult vs young animals, more space, more food available) rail, smooth wire, portable electric and combination fencing (center strands barbwire or smooth wire with rails or smooth wire for top and bottom or only one or two strands of high visibility electric) that allow the passage of wild game are acceptable as long as certain parameters are met:
- Visibility. Many wild animals do not have very good depth perception and see fewer colours. Wider strips, flagging and contrast all help to ensure animals can see a fence. The entire fence does not have to be marked – just intermittently alternating top, bottom and center, and more so in areas of high wildlife traffic.
- Account for grade. Gullies, waterbodies, hills etc. can add to the existing height or difficulty navigating a fence. One may require a shorter height fence in these areas to achieve the same result for retaining livestock while allowing other animals through.
- Have good wire/rail spacing to allow wild animals through your fence. Fawns need a minimum of 18 inches between the ground and the bottom strand so that they can get through. Top strands shouldn’t be more than 42 inches or 3 1/2 feet from the ground. Unless you keep horses, most livestock wouldn’t attempt jumping over this. A minimum spacing of 12 inches between remaining middle wires or rails ensures wildlife can also go through the fence if needed without harm or damaging the fence.
- Use the maximum amount of spacing between posts and use flexible stays (usually plastic or fiberglass) if required. Longer distances between posts mean more give to the fence so even if an animal gets momentarily caught, it can free itself without harm or tearing down the fence. Flexible stays increase rigidity over water or other areas where putting posts in is not possible, but are not as dangerous as wood or pipe stakes or wire. Make sure stays do not protrude past the top or bottom strand as they can impale jumping or diving animals. One may be able to utilize a suspension fence over longer runs where putting in posts is not feasible and stays alone are not enough.
- Fence for what your needs are. Sheep need a much shorter fence height with much more reduced spacing between strands than horses. With the exception of multi-species operations, you may find you can save labour and cost while still being able to contain your livestock.
- Be open minded to learn, and innovative to enable you to create good fencing solutions that benefit everyone. A sliding top rail can be removed on a gate area to allow wild game passage. Fence clips and staple locks are simple additions that can quickly change the height of a fence without it having to be permanent. Cap off open pipe tops as the edges can be sharp or worse still, smaller animals can become trapped in them and die.
Different people have different obligations or responsibilities in my mind when it comes to fencing as well. A farmer has every right to decide what humans they wish to have or not have on their land. They do not need to erect fencing
to do this, but simple stakes or even hedgerows and a few visible boundary or no trespassing signs can help hunters, dog walkers and nature lovers alike know where private land perimeters are and make things a lot more black and white. Reciprocally hunters and others should make no assumptions fenced or not, and should seek permission to hunt on or otherwise utilize any land they cannot clearly tell is their ‘buddy’s’ or is designated public land that allows hunting like WMUs. Don’t think that because you do not see a crop, a home or other outbuildings, a roadway of some sort, or even a fence, that it must be ok to use for their own purposes – even if you see someone else on it. Pretty much all land out there is owned by someone. If a farmer grants you access don’t abuse the privilege. Pick up after your pet , do not allow them or yourself to disturb any livestock, close any gates you open, sustainably harvest whether it be plant or animal so there will always be more available in the future, and leave the land the same or better than when you arrived. No ruts, no garbage…..you know the drill. Farmers patrol your fencing regularly for maintenance and to make sure nothing has escaped or been injured. A well maintained fence is a safer fence. Make notes of animal traffic and tweak your fencing to suit.
No one has to deal with these issues alone. Agricultural organizations, Counties, and conservation groups are all at your disposal to help you come up with wildlife friendly fencing options, funding and construction. Check out the following links for more great information:
Alberta Conservation Association (It has a great article that goes into more depth about wildlife friendly fencing)