21 June 2009

Fences for sheep

It has taken us a very long time – four summers, basically – to get the hang of making sheep-resistant fences. I dare not say sheep-proof fences, as I doubt there actually is any such thing, but we have learned quite a lot of things through trial and error and the new fences seem to be holding up reasonably well.

I think all the instructions for building fences must’ve been written by people in Saskatchewan, as nothing I’ve read tells you how to deal with the dips and swells in the land. The slightest dip or bump leaves a gap which a determined sheep or guardian dog will manage to wriggle under, loosening the fence, and leaving a larger gap for the next escape attempt.

So, here’s what we have learned so far:

First of all, you need wooden posts. You need to use *all* wooden posts. T-posts are great inventions, but they just don’t work well enough to qualify as permanent design elements in a sheep-fence.

Corners need to be braced (you will find instructions for that in any set of fence directions). We make H-shaped braces: basically, two fence posts pounded in about 2 feet apart with a brace screwed between the two about a foot down from the top of the posts. If you’re already making a braced corner, you can add a couple of extra cross bars and build a stile, for the humans to climb over. Stiles are an especially good idea on longer runs of fence where you’re not going to want to go all the way around to the gate every single time. We also build some stiles without wire across them, specifically so that the dogs (who will jump up and over and through a small square) can get from one place to another. The sheep don’t seem to go through those little square openings – although we do use them only on cross-fences, not perimeter fences, just to be on the safe side.

You also need page wire, or woven wire (four feet is good, five is better) and you need barbed wire. Oh, and you need a post pounder, a lot of staples, a hammer, a fence tightener, and something mobile and heavy to pull against (we use the bobcat, or a truck, but a quad would work well if you had one). If you haven’t got a ratcheting fence tightener you can use a comealong, but the fence tightener is really useful when it comes to the barbed wire, so it’s worth getting one.

Now that you have all the gear, how do you build the fence? Well, start off by putting in your posts. Wooden posts only, about 8-10 feet apart, always putting a post in the bottom of a dip and at the top of any rise or hillock that is in the path of your fence. You can get a straighter fence line if you put the corner posts in first then run a string from one to the other, using the string as a guide for where to place the posts. Eyeballing the alignment is rarely successful, trust me on this.

Posts can be very hard to pound into the ground: we pound in a sharp iron stake first (t-posts work for this too), then wiggle it to open the hole a bit, pull the stake out, and fill the hole with water. The wooden posts is then pounded into the dampened pre-started hole, and goes in much more smoothly than it does into unprepared ground. 

Get your H braces built at each corner and at the side of each gate opening. It’s really hard to have too many gates, and you need more stiles than you think you do. If you use a bobcat or tractor or quad, make sure each pasture has a gate wide enough to get through with your equipment, and consider building some smaller ‘people gates’ for the places you’ll routinely pass. People-sized gates are easier to open and close, and much easier to get through without letting all the sheep out.

Once the posts are in place, you can pull the page wire across. Unroll the fencing all along the row of posts (it’s easiest to unroll it on the ground then stand it up afterwards) and staple it to the far end of one of the H corners. Position your bobcat/truck/quad at the other end of the fence line (or as far down as you can reasonably go in one pass) so that you are able to hook your fence tightener onto some part of the vehicle and have it be in line with the fence. The idea is to pull the fencing against the immoveable vehicle, rather than against the corner fence posts – we’ve learned through much unhappy experience that even well-braced corners just can’t sustain the pressure of having the fence ratcheted tight against them, although for some reason (which I probably learned in high school physics and have subsequently forgotten), the posts can withstand the pressure of a tightened fence being stapled to them.

Now, tightening the fence involves a bit of a trick: take a long post (a t-post will work, or a piece of heavy pipe) and thread it through the holes in the woven wire, in and out, top to bottom. Hook one end of your fence tightener to this post, the other end to your vehicle, and ratchet the fence until it is nice and tight. This vertical post ensures that you get tension on the whole fence, rather than just on the one wire that you grabbed with the fence tightener.

Once the wire is pulled tight, go back along the fence and staple the wire to the posts. You don’t need to do every single wire on every single post, but the sheep will pressure the fence most at the bottom, so staple the bottom several wires for sure, and then about every other wire the rest of the way up.

Technically, according to the books, anyway, if you pull the wire tight enough, the sheep won’t be able to push their way under it. I suppose on flat ground with wooden posts no more than 5 feet apart this might work, but we’ve not been able to accomplish this feat ourselves. What we do is put the bottom of the page wire about an inch or two off the ground. We’ll deal with that gap shortly.

Staple your fence to the posts all the way along, and then take off the tension (be careful when you release the fence tightener, sometimes things spring back and you can get whacked in the head). Move your vehicle down the line, unroll some more fence, and keep going.

Once the page wire is in place, you need to put the barbed wire on the bottom. This is the key to a sheep-resistant fence. The barbed wire is a lot easier to tighten, and it will fill in that gap between the bottom of the page wire and the ground. Wrap a strand of barbed wire around your corner post, staple it in place, and then stretch the wire along the line of fence posts. This time you can use the last post as a brace for your fence tightener – you are pulling right against the base of the post, so it will not lean over from the strain. Pull the wire tight, staple it in place, then cut, wrap, and staple the end in place. Now go along the fence line and look for any spots where the page wire seems to wiggle at the bottom. In those spots, take a short piece of wire and tie the page wire to the barbed wire: the taut barbed wire lends it's stability to the page wire, and attaching the two together leaves the sheep less wiggle room.

With the wire all in place, all that remains are gates. Gates you go through every day need to be hinged people-sized gates, but gates that keep one pasture separated from the next can be tied in place. We are now using hog panels cut to size for a lot of our gates: they are sturdy, easy to cut with bolt cutters, and can be ‘hinged’ with rope. We had built a lot of wooden panels to use for gates, but the hog panels are lighter, much faster to build, and tidier-looking. Getting a pile of them delivered along with the fence posts was a good idea.

If you will be going in and out of a particular spot during the winter, keep in mind that you’ll need snow clearance. A rope-hinged gate can float upwards as the snow piles up, whereas a gate with proper hinges has a fixed height and must be shoveled out all winter.

We are still working on infrastructure improvements, and redoing the fences is one of the biggest tasks. Taking loose fences down just so you can put them back up again later in the day is a lot of work, as is chasing escaped sheep! If you can get your fences right the first time, you’ll be glad of it.

A lot of people use electric fencing when dealing with sheep, and have had good success. With our small size, though, it’s not quite cost effective, and there are technical issues to be dealt with as well so for us, the payoff just isn’t there. It’s worth considering though, especially if you have a lot of determined escapees or if you already use electric fencing for other livestock.

Of course, now that I’ve written this, the sheep are probably all going to be out wandering the neighbourhood, just to put me in my place. I’d better go check. :)

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