Wildlife netting can do far more harm than good

Three years ago my wife found an opossum in one of our sheds with a plastic six-pack ring around its neck. I immobilized the ‘possum with a towel, and we cut off the ring. The critter toddled off without even playing ‘possum. No harm, no foul, just a reminder of the harm that such plastics can do.

Until recently I considered that an isolated event. But last week on the PA-BIRDS list serve, a member wrote that he had found a large black snake entangled in a clump of “wildlife netting” used to protect a berry crop from birds. He wondered if others had experienced this problem.

Within a few hours, a half dozen replies expressed similar concerns. One wrote of finding a mockingbird trapped in a garden completely covered in netting. He managed to free the bird. Another reported finding a long dead chipmunk in an unused tangle of netting.

Hazardous

Another post really got my attention. It mentioned finding a flicker, catbirds, robins, a Baltimore oriole, and even a red-tailed hawk in plastic netting. The poster lamented the widespread use of plastic netting and fencing by farmers, landscapers, and gardeners. The low cost of such netting has made it a widespread hazard for wildlife.

I realize that many people have little interest in doing anything that might save a snake from a cruel death, but this is when we need to see the big picture. Snakes eat more small rodents such as chipmunks, mice and rats, than most people can imagine, and they are eaten by a variety of hawks and mammalian predators.

Plastic netting and fencing is widely available at hardware and big box stores. Properly used and monitored, it can provide protection to gardens and fruit trees. And orange plastic fencing has a variety of uses. Years ago I used it to prevent basketballs from rolling down the hill away from my daughters’ court.

Vigilance

But such netting and fencing cannot be forgotten after its initial usefulness expires. These materials last many years and form death traps long after its intended use is over.

Another increasingly common source of plastic fencing is found along natural gas pipelines that criss-cross the countryside. Look for this bright orange plastic fencing wherever a pipeline crosses a road. It has gotten so I can’t drive more than a few miles without seeing orange fencing on both sides of the road.

The simple way to prevent needless death and suffering by a variety of wildlife is to stop using plastic fencing and netting,. But that is probably easier said than done. These products serve valuable purposes, especially when used to protect gardens and fruit crops.

Solution

So spread the word. Explain to friends and neighbors the danger plastic fencing and netting poses to wildlife. Encourage them to remove it when it’s no longer needed, and store it responsibly indoors when the job is done. And ask pipeline workers to remove the plastic fencing when the right-of-way is completed.

A similar threat is posed by landscaping mats formed by straw sandwiched between two layers of netting. Snakes, turtles, chipmunks and other small rodents are particularly vulnerable to these mats. After the mat does its job and grass grows up through it, the netting remains hazardous for years. I recently saw an image online of a turtle whose shell was hour glass-shaped from having been trapped in plastic fencing.

Alternatives

If there’s a landscaping job in your future, consider using mats made from biodegradable fibers such as jute. It is clearly a better choice for wildlife. Sometimes it’s the little things we do that can make big differences to wildlife.

The dangers to wildlife posed by plastic netting and fencing are not always obvious. Too often we focus on the job at hand and how to get it done as quickly as possible. We fail to take a longer view. By anticipating problems, we become better people. And by spreading the word and explaining to others the dangers of plastic fencing and netting, we become better conservationists.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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