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Farmers try to fence out nasty nature

by Winifred Bird

Special To The Japan Times

I once asked a professor of agriculture in the southwestern United States what sort of fence would keep a goat from escaping.

“Well,” he replied, taking a long and pensive draw on his cigarette. “If it can keep out air and keep out water, it can keep in a goat.”

Those wise words came to mind early one recent Sunday morning as I stood near a steep, wooded ravine a few hundred meters from my house in rural Nagano Prefecture. Across the head of the ravine, which cuts down from the forest through farmland below, stands a two-meter-high wire fence topped with four rows of electrified wire intended to keep undesirable wildlife out of the village.

At the bottom of the ravine, popping firecrackers and barking like dogs, were five hunters in pursuit of a small black bear that had recently been spotted on “our” side of the fence.

Black bears (Ursus thibetanus) are endangered in parts of western Japan, but they’re not unusual where I live. They’re typically not aggressive unless they feel threatened. Most of the time, you could say the same about the locals, but this bear had caught my neighborhood in western Matsumoto off guard.

The farmers had spent much of the previous winter felling trees, erecting posts and stringing wire to construct a fence that now runs along the edge of the village, dividing forest from fields. They hoped it would keep monkeys (actually, Japanese macaques), wild boar, deer and bears from entering their fields and eating crops — a growing problem in recent years.

But just after the fence was completed, a truck driver spotted the bear — called a tsukinowaguma (crescent bear) in Japanese, and a moon bear in English, because of a characteristic white marking on the chest.

Fences like ours are spreading throughout Japan. Since 2009, rural communities in Matsumoto have fenced 62 km of forest edge using government funds and local labor. Another 76 km are planned.

The city of 243,000 people straddles a valley with forested mountains on either side; the fence curves neatly along the western edge of the developed valley floor and hops in a series of still-to-be connected squiggles, lines and loops along the longer eastern edge. On the ground, it presents a barrier not only to wildlife trying to descend to farmland, but also to people venturing toward the woods.

More than 1,000 km of village-scale fencing has gone up in Nagano Prefecture since 2005. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has no nationwwide data for such barriers, but funding for “hard” infrastructure to fend off wildlife increased nearly fivefold from 2008 and 2011 — to about ¥10 billion. According to the ministry, most of that money went toward periphery fencing like ours. The results, they claim, have been impressive.

In my neighborhood, however, there had been a glitch. A wooded ravine separates us from the next village, but the fence doesn’t actually cross the stream that runs along the bottom of this ravine. Instead, a chain is stretched across the gap, with 26 chains charged with 8,000 volts of electricity hanging down from it over the water.

During April and May, the electricity wasn’t working properly and city officials speculate that the bear passed through the gap during that period. Then, when the electricity was fixed in late May, it became trapped on the “human” side of the fence.

After the small, 15-kg animal was spotted on May 21 and 30, the city asked members of the local hunting association to chase it back up the ravine to the forest — or, if it headed toward houses instead of toward the narrow gap in the fence, to kill it. My husband and I had come along to see what happened.

As we stood at a roadblock near the ravine, another round of firecrackers exploded. The smoke unraveled slowly over a field of scallions and a cluster of birds hurried toward the mountains. A moment later a tiny, aged man with a rifle slung over one shoulder emerged from the woods.

“Any sign of the bear?” my husband asked him.

“We didn’t see it, but we did see fresh scratches in the dirt,” he answered.

The fence-breaker, it seemed, was still on the loose. Fences, trenches, and other barriers built on the village scale are nothing new for Japanese hill farmers, of course. Some shishigaki (boar walls) built in the 18th and 19th centuries were up to 2 meters high and extended for 100 km.

In Nagano Prefecture, records of boar walls go back to the late 1680s. Ryosuke Kishimoto, a mammal specialist at the Nagano Environmental Conservation Research Institute, said wildlife damage to crops was quite extensive in the Edo Period (1603-1867). It dropped off during the century that followed, when a thriving pelt market and easier access to guns contributed to drastic drops in wildlife populations.

Most of the old shishigaki were abandoned or dismantled during this period. As rural land use, culture and population patterns shifted again in the late 20th century, however, wildlife damage to crops increased and upland communities began to erect new types of barriers between their cultivated enclaves and the less-tame realms surrounding them.

In Matsumoto, the impetus for perimeter fencing came first from local officials. Matsumoto agriculture department official Shinzo Kobayashi said that, starting about 15 years ago, many farmers near the forests began fencing off their fields to keep out monkeys and other destructive animals (wildlife damage reduced the city’s total farm income by less than 1 percent last year, but certain areas suffer disproportionate losses). But as these farmers’ fenced “islands” proliferated, wildlife simply moved on further downhill to unfenced fields.

“It was very expensive, so around 2008 the city suggested fencing off whole communities. The cooperative approach is more efficient and effective,” Kobayashi said. The city offered to pay for supplies using local and national funds, and many communities jumped at the chance.

But Kazutoshi Iwamura, a rice farmer and natural medicine practitioner who owns a field directly below a planned fencing site in Azumino, just north of Matsumoto, says that he and some of his neighbors worry privately about the barrier’s effects.

“It’s unnatural,” said Iwamaru, 47, who will have to pass through two metal gates to reach his field once the project is complete. “I think it will become harder to go into the forest.”

Still, he says he understands why no one objected to the project at community meetings.

“Monkeys eat squash, beans, strawberries — everything. I understand that separating our living spaces is something that farmers can do right now to address the problem. But we are only thinking about our own needs.

“We’ve destroyed the forests [with single-species tree plantations] so the animals come down for food.

“What we really should do is plant oaks and other trees in the mountains that produce fruit the wildlife can eat,” he said.

For now, communities like mine are taking a more confrontational approach. At 8 o’clock on the morning of Monday, June 11 — the day after the fruitless bear search in my neighborhood — a farmer on the other side of the ravine spotted the fugitive in his apple orchard. He called the local branch of City Hall, and the wildlife control official drove out to the farm.

After catching sight of the small female bear, the official called the hunting association. By shortly after 9 a.m. the president and vice president of the association had arrived, rifles in hand, along with a prefectural wildlife specialist.

Nagano Prefecture’s wildlife management plan calls for preserving bears at their current population level. Since they reproduce slowly, officials are instructed to avoid culling too many each year (monkeys, deer and boars, viewed as abundant pests, are a different story: Kobayashi said any of those happening to cross the fence will be promptly shot). So the small group gathered beneath the apple trees had to weigh the options.

“The bear was in the orchard, several dozen meters from a house. It posed a threat to humans,” said the city employee on site, who requested his name not be used.

“The fence was there, and there was no exit nearby. If there had been a gate maybe we could have chased it back to the mountains. But this is the busy season for apple farmers. We couldn’t have told them to stop work for hours while we did that.”

Neither, presumably, was there time to sedate the bear and return it to the forest.

So the group of hunters and officials quickly made their decision. At 9:40 a.m. the bear was shot and killed. The line between human and wild realms was restored — until the next innocent forager finds its fatal way across.