The fence that isn't there

Freddie crossing the fence that isn’t there. He’s got such a lot of character! Hates Pearl, and does his best to stay right next to me—him protecting me or me protecting him?—whenever she is near.

Freddie crossing the fence that isn’t there. He’s got such a lot of character! Hates Pearl, and does his best to stay right next to me—him protecting me or me protecting him?—whenever she is near.

As the sheep and I get better at foraging for diversity, fences often create problems. While gates are open between adjacent paddocks in a grazing area, and the sheep certainly know to use them, fences impede the natural grazing pattern. Sheep preferentially graze uphill and into the wind: the former as a defence against predators (they like to get to a place where they can see long distances) and the latter as an aid to locating diversity ahead through the distinctive odours of different secondary compounds.

If there is a fence that crosses both the hill slope and the direction of the prevailing wind, sheep will graze up near the fence from the downhill/downwind side, but will not do the same thing on the uphill/upwind side. As a result, areas of rank grass build up along those fence lines.

Before I started shepherding, I viewed fences as an unalloyed asset—allowing me to control the grazing patterns and location of my animals. As I’ve come to trust in their ability to forage successfully, fences have increasingly become more liability than asset. However, they are devilishly expensive to build and it’s not easy to bring myself to dismantle a “perfectly good” fence, especially if I had it built recently. In fact, I’ve deliberately avoided asking my fencing contractor to take down any of the fences he put up—my rep in the district for doing mad things is already bad enough!

When my good friends Mary Jane and Joe from Berkeley were here visiting in April, though, I seized the opportunity—and their enthusiasm for farm work—to corral them into helping me take down a particularly egregious section of fence. It was installed by my current fencing guy’s dad, and was one of the first of the fences I had built, back in about 2002. My “new” fences (as opposed to the rag-tag ones I inherited when I bought the farm) are all steel, to make them more or less impervious to fire. The endpoints of a section of fence are steel posts 10 cm square, set a metre or so into the ground with concrete. Supporting each fence post is a strut, a 5 m or so length of steel pipe that prevents the fence post from pulling sideways when the wire is strained up.

In between the post/strut endpoints, steel “star pickets” are driven into the ground every 6 to 8 m along the fence line. These support the wire itself. I don’t use any barbed wire, though there is a strand of plain wire at the top of the fence, threaded through the top hole in each star picket. The plain wire has one lovely characteristic—it sings when the wind is blowing hard enough. The pitch depends on the length of the section.

The wire that does the work of the fence is referred to here in Australia as “cyclone”, but is nothing like the chain mesh that I knew from schoolyards in California when I was growing up. This is sort of woven in squares of 10 x 10 cm (4 x 4 inches). At each star picket, the cyclone is attached using specially designed tie wires through 5 holes in the picket. Cyclone comes in 200m (220 yard) rolls, and weighs an absolute ton. I have to use the lift on my pickup to move the rolls about.

So, dismantling a fence is not a trivial undertaking. Especially when the grass is up to chest height and sprinkled with thistles here and there—not to mention wombat holes dug by those clever critters to circumvent the fence. Each tie on each post has to be cut and captured—I don’t like the sharp ends left on the ground for sheep to step on. Then the cyclone has to be pulled out of the long grass and rolled back up. We took down about 400 m of fence, which took the best part of two days. Getting the star pickets out can be quite a chore, and it didn’t matter if I “stored” them in situ until I needed them elsewhere, like a tree planting exercise.

Because what your eye “sees” as a fence is the star pickets, not the cyclone, it looks like there is still a fence, though the video below proves otherwise!