Henrik Refslund Hansen, a Danish farmer, says the fence is to protect animals. (Martin Selsoe Sorensen for The New York Times)
Trying to halt the spread of a disease that can wipe out domestic pig populations, Denmark intends to build a fence along its border with Germany to keep out the pigs’ wild cousins, but there are a few wrinkles.
To the government’s frustration, many Danes see the fence as being about more than just swine. People have called it a possible step toward blocking refugees, a detriment to wildlife, a reminder of painful history, or a violation of the European Union ethos of invisible borders and free movement.
But little scientific evidence suggests that it will work. «We have to enter the imagination of a pig», said Bent Rasmussen, who is in charge of the project. «It’s not easy».
The African swine fever virus poses a serious threat to production of pork, a major export for Denmark. It spreads readily and is highly resilient, capable of surviving for months in pork products and feces. There is no vaccine or treatment, and the only way to contain an outbreak is to cull the population, as Romania did recently, killing 230,000 pigs.
The virus is usually harmless to its traditional hosts, African animals like warthogs and bushpigs, as it is to people. But in domestic pigs and wild boars, it causes a hemorrhagic fever that is often lethal. In recent years, it has become widespread in Russia. Outbreaks have been reported recently in Romania, Belgium, Bulgaria and seven provinces of China.
Denmark’s $20 million answer includes a public awareness campaign, expanded permission to kill wild boars, and a fence about 1.5 meters tall along the nearly 70-kilometer land border, across the neck of the Jutland peninsula, from the North Sea to the Baltic.
In Denmark, work is expected to begin on the fence early next year, though environmentalists have appealed to the European Union to stop it. The fence will have openings for 15 official border crossings, five waterways and passages for local farmers to allow the movement of people and goods.
The hope is that deer and otters will still be able to cross the border, but boars will be deterred. Critics ask why that would work, given that the wild pigs are smart and curious, and forage over long distances. In a report this summer, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that «there is no evidence that large fences have been effective for the containment of wild suids», using a word for the pig animal family.
Denmark’s fence is seen as violating Europe’s free and open borders. Bent Rasmussen, in charge of the project. (Martin Selsoe Sorensen for The New York Times)
Hans Kristensen, a hunter and founder of a Facebook group opposed to the fence, said, «It’s like creating your retirement fund by buying a lottery ticket».
Experts note that the Belgian outbreak of African swine fever occurred far from any others, indicating that people, not pigs, transported the virus. “Long-distance spread of A.S.F. can happen anytime all over Europe,” said Dr. Klaus Depner of the Federal Research Institute for Animal Health in Germany. «Fences cannot prevent such events».
The plan includes putting cameras where roads cut through the fence, to record how often boars circumvent it.The right-wing Danish People’s Party has asked the minister of justice about using the cameras to look for people crossing the border illegally.
Such talk angers Henrik Refslund Hansen, a farmer. «It’s not a border fence», he said. «I don’t want to hear any of that. It’s a veterinary fence made to protect our animals».
The fence is a source of unease for Denmark’s ethnic German minority of about 15,000 people. Jorgen Popp Petersen, a pig farmer and representative of the minority’s political party, recalls «fanatics» in his childhood resisting intercommunity marriages and calling for a redrawing of the border. The fanatics and their views are gone, he said, but sensitivities over ethnic divisions and national boundaries remain.
Denmark’s minister of environment and food, Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, said he understood that sensitivity.
«It’s very un-European to build fences and boundaries between countries», he said. «I fight for free movement in every other context. When it’s right in this context it’s because such a large part of exports is at risk».