To Keep African Swine Fever Out, Denmark Is Planning A Southern Boar(der) Fence

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As U.S. politicians continue to spar over the idea of building a border wall, Denmark is preparing its own controversial southern border-control barrier.

The target is wild boars — specifically, wild boars from Germany. But environmentalists warn the planned 5 ft.-high, 40-mile fence will harm the region's wildlife and may not even serve the function for which it's intended.

Understanding the rationale for spending $12 million on a fence that may not even work requires understanding the enormity of the Danish pig industry. At any given moment, Denmark is home to at least twice as many pigs as people (roughly 12 million pigs to not quite 6 million Danes). The country's export market for pigs amounts to about $5 billion a year.

At Berith Nissen's farm in southern Denmark, visitors must change their clothes and socks, wash their hands and slip into borrowed shoes before she'll open the door to reveal some of her 10,000-plus pigs.

"We have to be sure that we don't take diseases with us in the stable," she explains.

There are plenty of pig diseases to worry about, but the one keeping Nissen up at night lately is African swine fever (ASF). It hasn't hit Denmark yet, but last fall, it turned up among several wild boars in Belgium. Outbreaks are becoming common in China and parts of Eastern Europe.

The disease doesn't pose a risk to human health, but it's deadly for swine. An outbreak on a farm like Nissen's would mean culling the entire herd. It's so serious that if even one wild boar in Denmark were found with ASF, the country's pork exports to most countries outside Europe would completely halt, a potential loss of around $1.5 billion a year.

According to European Union rules, Danish farmers operating at what's deemed to be a safe distance from the outbreak could continue selling within Europe. But that much redirected pork would flood the European market, likely leading to a drop in prices. Nissen says that scenario could cost her half a million dollars a year. She's already feeling the pressure caused by Belgian farmers having to keep their product inside Europe due to the outbreak there.

When ASF jumps to a new area, as was the case in Belgium, it's most likely thanks to humans. In a public awareness film, the European Food Safety Authority illustrates how hunters, farmers or even careless picnickers can spread the disease through contaminated equipment or food. If not contained (in accordance with lengthy European Union rules) the virus may spread from boar to boar or boar to pig at a rate of about 5 to 10 miles per year.

And this is where the fence comes in. Construction is due to start on Jan. 28. It began as a political idea last year, pushed by the pig industry and former Minister of Environment and Food Esben Lunde Larsen. But Bent Rasmussen, chief forester for southern Denmark with the Danish Nature Agency, has been the one tasked with designing the fence.

He says there's an element of timing involved, given that Europe's wild boar population is on the rise.

"You have a lot of wild boars in Germany," he says. "But you don't have many wild boars in Denmark."

There are only about 100 or 200 so far, he says. And because there are so few, it creates a window of opportunity to prevent the spread of disease.

But at the same time the fence keeps wild boars out, it must also allow other wildlife — and people — to pass freely.

"It's not an easy task," Rasmussen concedes. The proposed fence will be low enough for deer to jump over, and small openings every 100 yards will allow smaller mammals like foxes, hares and otters to pass through.

But wildlife advocates say there is little evidence that these solutions will work, especially for bigger animals like the protected wild wolf, which only recently returned to Denmark from Germany after a 200-year absence. The wolf needs a lot of room to roam and conservationists worry that environmental reviews have been too rushed to discern how the fence will affect its migration patterns and interactions with people and traffic.

And, they say, there is even less evidence that the fence will actually stop the wild boars. There are large gaps where roads and paths cut through — and boars can even swim, meaning these animals could (and do) easily cross the narrow fjord separating Denmark from Germany.

The fence will be combined with other measures like game cameras, public education campaigns and near-unlimited boar hunting. Advocates argue that anything to reduce the potential for disease is worth trying. But others believe the fence misses the point.

"What we're trying to do here, politically, is to build a fence in order to feel safe," Danish hunter and forest engineer Hans Kristensen explains. "The problem with feeling safer is that it comes at a cost. The cost is nature and the cost is the neighborhood [relations] between Denmark and Germany. We create problems that we don't have to."

The Danish-German border has been historically fluid. Its current location is less than 100 years old. Like many people in southern Denmark, Kristensen has friends and relations on both sides, and worries about the fence as yet another symbol of isolationism.

"We shouldn't try to make a solution just for Denmark," he says. "This is a problem all across Europe and we have to make a solution that includes Europe instead of excluding [it]."

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