Fencing For Creatures Great And Small
By Jeffery Goss, Jr., C.H., Missouri
“Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes.” — Song of Solomon 2:15
Having abundant wildlife on your farm or homestead is generally a good thing, but when a certain species or another is a threat or nuisance, coexisting with that species can become difficult, to say the least.
Foxes can eat eggs and sometimes kill young chicks, ducklings, and goslings. Raccoons can strew garbage everywhere and can also do all the above-stated fox behaviors. Porcupines are usually not a problem, except that in some cases they can inadvertently kill young trees by eating the bark, and they can also injure dogs that try to catch or corner them. Rabbits…well, just let some into your garden and you’ll understand opossums are generally no big deal, but if you live in an area where equine encephalitis is going around, a possum relieving itself in your stable can ultimately translate to a dead horse. Dogs from a neighboring farmstead (or worse yet, a stray pack) can be dangerous to you and your own dogs, not to mention that any superfluous dog running around you place means more scooping to do, unless you don’t mind tracking it into the house. Cats are usually not a problem, but if you have a flock of fowl, a particular cat just might be. Weasels, mink and their relatives are relentless hunters of any small creature (even kittens). Woodchucks are ravenous garden consumers, and like raccoons, they are fond of corn on the cob. Nutria spread disease and chews openings where you don’t want them. And when it comes to skunks, you for “stinking” sure don’t want to encounter one when you go out at night to dump the compost pail, not to mention the mess they make in the yard digging for grubs.
If the conflict is with only one or a few individual animals, the best or simplest solution is to trap and relocate them. In other cases, the best solution is to create a physical barrier, i.e., some sort of fence or wall. Although most farm/country fences are made with a mind toward keeping larger animals in or out, they are practically laughed at by smaller beasts.
Let us start by considering the simplest kinds of fences. Virginia fences are split logs, stacked one on the other in a zigzag formation: a truly rustic fence. While easy to build, they have basically one practical purpose: to keep cattle out of a crop, such as corn, or out of an orchard. Such fences cannot keep jumping animals (deer) out very well, and small animals can simply walk through them. Another old-fashioned form of fencing, popular is the Ozarks, is a living hedge of bois d’arc (Osage orange). This keeps out most cattle, horses and sheep (or keeps them in a field), but once again it has no real effect upon small mammals.
Then there are stone fences, the Robert Frost kind. These are common in eastern Canada and New England, as well as in the British Isles. Stone fences are one step below stone walls: a stone fence is held up solely or primarily by the rocks’ sheer weight, rather than by mortar; consequently they are apt to need rebuilding, as the poem observes. In terms of keeping out small animals though, they can actually do quite well, so long as they stay together. Rabbits might be able to hole up between the stones, but not necessarily make it through.
Post and picket fences are the next level of fence building. While laborious to construct and susceptible to fire, these wooden fences are built tight and therefore, in many cases, more reliable than stone un-mortared fences. With wood, the posts are all bound to one another. There is no need to worry about stones falling apart and making gaps that even two can pass abreast. Some styles of picket fence though, are just a meaningless to small critters as a Virginia fence would be. The Kentucky-style, bright whitewashed idyllic fences that often frame horse pastures are meant only for keeping horses in, and in some instances they are even more motivated by the “snob value” of a picket-fence esthetic, which is needed in order to impress all but the most stolidly professional gamblers.
Stereotypes aside, a picket fence can often be built for containing or excluding small mammals if built right. Although it demands more wood, the fence must be built with close gaps between the planks. And the posts must be significantly closer together, so that there is no stretch of easily undermined open space beneath the fence. However, for covering a large area, wooden fencing is neither economical nor ecological.
Metal is the material of choice for many small-animal exclusion fence setups, as any thorough study thereof will reveal. Such fencing is structurally like baling wire, only larger. Chicken wire will work, as long as the fence is high enough. An extreme example of small-creature-blocking is the system of ultra-high fences used in Australian environmental restorations. John Wamsley, widely known as the environmentalist who hates cats, organized to keep out feral cats and other introduced mammals after eliminating them from the area by trapping. Wamsley’s system uses a “lip” on one side of the extra-tall fence in order to prevent jumping. Cats are really good at it, as I am sure you know.
Most metal fences such as chain link and barbed wire are made with spaces way too wide to keep out anything smaller than a dog. On cattle ranches and sheep ranches, this is often all that is needed. But when more intensive control is required, reinforcing the fence with a second, finer-spaced roll on the other side of the posts might be easier and more efficient than tearing out the old fence entirely. Caveat, the double-layer wire fence might not look very pretty, but then neither does a pile of raccoon-strewn trash all over your dooryard and walkway, or a pile of feathers where a bobcat got one of your ducks.
Some who read this may be thinking about electric perimeter fencing. While such contraptions may have their place, there are several things that should be considered before installing one.
1. Electromagnetic fields. There has been little safety testing on electric fences, but the harmful nature of fields from similar devices has long been known (going all the way back to John Ott’s studies in the 1960s). Electric fence lines carry a strong field.
2. Ease of compromise. Electric fence lines can easily be put out of service by grounding (even a tree branch falling on the fence and touching the ground). It can also be done by something breaking the line, which is quite common. In such cases the fence may be a source of false security, especially if there is no fence other than those few strands of supposedly electrified wire.
3. Humans can accidentally get a vicious shock, such as by touching a tree that touches the fence or by accidentally touching a connected wire or when tending the fence or livestock.
4. Electrification apparatus are usually expensive and the money could be spent on a lot of other, probably better things.
Jeffery Goss, Jr., C.H., can be reached at P.O. Box 14122, Springfield, MO 65814.