How To Make Your Fence Wildlife Friendly

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To you, that fence feels like a cozy enclosure. To animals, it's a barrier to survival. Here's how to make sure your fence is kinder to wildlife.

To humans, fences and dividing walls are such a ubiquitous part of everyday life we don’t pay them much mind. But if you look at a fence from a turtle’s or a deer’s perspective, they’re barriers toward most of life’s everyday activities, from finding food and water to migrating and mating. Ill-designed fences can also divert wildlife onto busy streets and trap young animals.

“Once you start to see it, there’s fencing everywhere,” says Christine Paige, wildlife biologist and author of A Landowner’s Guide to Wildlife Friendly Fences. “And we have more fence going in all the time.

“But what’s really cool is I’m seeing miles and miles of wildlife friendly fencing now. These recommendations have been around since the 1960s, but now we have more science behind them and they’re really catching on.”

Whether you reside on a ranch, in the burbs or in a city, wildlife-friendlier fencing helps us live in better harmony with our wild neighbors, be they elk, fox, bobcats, crabs or quail. Here are some ideas for modifying your fence, or building a new and kinder one.

What Makes a Fence Wildlife Friendly?

Fences that are more friendly to wildlife share these characteristics:

  • Low enough to jump over;
  • Have a bottom high enough to crawl under;
  • Taut, with no loose or broken wires;
  • Ample space between cross wires or beams;
  • Easy for running animals or flying birds to see;
  • Don’t block animals from essential pathways or habitat;
  • Don’t create a three-dimensional obstacle (like a buck fence);
  • Don’t have parts that can impale or snag leaping animals.

Another fence faux-pas is not knowing which animals need to move through your property and where they want to go. So before building a fence, play detective to figure out who’s around and what they need.

“Look for tracks in winter,” says Paige. “Is there a little gully, a stream nearby where animals tend to move? Can you find trails?” A camera trap can also help uncover who’s coming through.

What Is the Best Wildlife Fence?

“The first question for every land or homeowner, is: Do I really need to put a fence up, or can it be something very simple?” says Paige. “Ask yourself, do you want to fence something simply to say, ‘This is mine, these are the boundaries?’ ”

If that’s the case, natural borders like native hedgerows or pretty boulders can define your property line without a traditional fence. So can a short or open-design fence. Think low posts with a cable or chain between them, or a split-rail fence.

“Make something that’s easy to step over or slip under,” says Paige. “For a small suburban lot, that’s often all that is needed, if you need anything at all.” If you do put up a fence, steer clear of iron fences with spikes and narrow bars which can impale or trap deer.

Protect Specific Areas With Exclusion Fences

You might not need to fence in your whole property, just protect a garden and hay bales, or keep a dog from running away. Exclusion fences contain a small area with a high or electric fence.

“Many people these days have chickens and beehives and those are problematical because we do want to keep bears and all sizes of predators out,” says Paige. “Electrifying chicken coops and the area around the coop where the chickens can feed is really important to reduce conflicts with wildlife so you can co-exist.”

Electricity keeps out many predators. It might sound intimidating but there are people who will help you set it up, like state fish and game agencies, and sometimes local nonprofits.

Create Safe Passage Over and Under

The best fences allow animals to jump over or slide under. The newest research for ungulates (animals with hooves) recommends a top rail wooden bar to prevent entanglement. It should be no higher than 40 inches. But if it’s on a slope, consider making it lower since it’s much harder to clear something from a downhill position.

The second wire should be at least 12 inches from the top one, to help prevent the legs of deer and other ungulates from getting tangled. The bottom wire should have at least 18 inches of clearance from the ground and should be smooth instead of barbed.

“Young animals, fawns, elk calves, moose, they all need to slip under,” says Paige.

Build In Easy Exits

Gates allow animals to pass through or escape from your yard. This is especially important if you live in a migration corridor. Open gates or remove fencing seasonally when animals like elk or pronghorn move through.

Also, Paige says, “Have a gate in the corner that’s easily opened, so if there is something trapped back there, like a young fawn, it can get out.”

Keep Fences Maintained and Visible

Loose wires increase animals’ chances of getting entangled. So do single-strand wires that are difficult to see.

To add visibility, attach flags or ribbons, or add PVC pipe, polywire or poly tape to the top wire. Double-stranded smooth wire is also more visible for a top wire. If your fence crosses meadows or a waterway, visibility is especially vital for birds.

Ditch the Chainlink

Chainlink fence is especially difficult for small animals like turtles, land crabs, armadillos and foxes. “They all get blocked by cyclone fence,” says Paige. “Fence design that are much more open is important, especially for the little guys.”

Resources To Update Your Fence

To learn about more specific ways to modify your fence, download Paige’s brochure, which has become a standard for creating wildlife-friendlier fences in the U.S. and other countries.

If you own larger acreage, especially Western ranch land with old barbed-wire fencing, several organizations can help you remove or modify fences to be more wildlife friendly while tailored to your specific needs. They can also let you know if you’re in a migration corridor.

These organizations include your state’s fish and wildlife agency, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, county conservation districts, various local and regional conservation nonprofits and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. If you graze cattle, look into virtual fencing as well.

Karuna Eberl
Karuna writes about wildlife, nature, history and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites including National Geographic, National Parks, Discovery Channel, Atlas Obscura and the High Country News. She's also produced a number of independent films and directed the documentary The Guerrero Project, about the search for a sunken slave ship. She and her husband, Steve, wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town. She holds a B.A. in journalism and geology from the University of Montana. Member of OWAA, SATW.