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Boundaries and barriers: The environmental impact of fences

‘Good fences make good neighbours’ goes the old adage from Robert Frost, but what happens when these lines in the sand start causing more harm than good? Serving the common purpose of restricting movement, it might seem that fences are everywhere these days, marking cultural and political boundaries or, on a smaller scale, the limits of land ownership. 

Fenced off land is by no means a new phenomenon. They first began popping up when William the Conqueror claimed England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He kept a fifth of England for himself and proceeded to exclude the public from large areas of communal land to allow space for his deer to graze and make profit from selling venison. Fast forward nearly 1000 years and this trend has steadily continued with more and more land being restricted from common use. 

So what’s the problem with fences? Some fences serve a positive purpose; security or protecting endangered species and habitats. However, fences are being built at an unprecedented rate. In 1990, only fifteen countries had a border fence, today the number is more than seventy. The crux of the issue is that fence lines are arbitrary for ecosystems and animal populations which frequently span across borders. Equally important, they are restrictive to human movement.

Let’s first consider animals. The most obvious danger is animals getting directly entangled in fences. This is a serious problem for migratory large mammals such as antelope and deer. For example, hundreds of gazelles were found tangled in the border fence along the Russia-Mongolia border in the two years after it was built. There are also more subtle effects through preventing animals accessing food and breeding between populations. If fences must be built, wildlife corridors or crossing structures through fences can minimise effects on animals. Temporarily removing fences at important times of the year such as key migration or breeding seasons can also boost animal populations. 

Deer By Fence

The COVID-19 pandemic was a wake-up call on the importance of us accessing nature for mental and physical wellbeing. In 2018, the UK government committed in its 25 Year Environment Plan to ensure “our natural environment can be enjoyed, used by and cared for by everyone”. This commitment has been enshrined in law and adds to the existing ‘right to roam’ in certain areas of the countryside. However, looking at the details and the picture isn’t so rosy. 

In 2020, a Ramblers/YouGov survey revealed that less than two thirds of people had easy access to any nature, which dropped further for households on lower incomes or ethnic minorities. The ‘right to roam’ applies to only about 8% of English land and almost all rivers are off-limits to the public. Thousands of areas that are supposedly accessible to the public can only be reached by trespassing over private land whilst even more public paths in England are blocked or obstructed. To see how it could work, you don’t need to look much further than Scotland. Scotland leads the way in this regard with public rights of access over all land and water throughout Scotland as long as they behave responsibly.

Following objections from several green charities and organisations, the UK government is set to tackle this problem. With new National Parks in the works and funds pouring into woodland restoration and engaging children with nature, the tide is turning. These changes are set to benefit people and the planet, both directly and indirectly. Evidence from the University of Exeter suggests that people who regularly visit natural spaces, regardless of where they live, are more likely to make eco choices.

So, here's the deal let's all get out there and enjoy nature. And while we're at it, let's speak up for more accessible green spaces and do our part to keep the planet healthy so future generations can enjoy it like we do. 

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