Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Something there is that doesn't love a wall...

Thus begins a favorite poem by Robert Frost, the source of "good fences make good neighbors" if I remember right.

Sheep are definitely one of the "somethings" that don't love fences. And they are NOT good neighbors to a garden or a pasture if they are longing for fresh greens. Sheep invented the philosophy of the grass being greener on the other side. They resent fences. They challenge fences. They can, and do, overcome fences, when given ample time and incentive.

My fences, at this time, are a mute testimony to the power of "livestock pressure". Last year the pasture was unusable because it was infested with a weed, dodder (more on this nightmare in the future), which the sheep could have transported into the vegetable growing areas of the farm, wreaking long-term havoc. Keeping sheep where they can see green pasture, but not graze it, results in extreme pressure on the fences as they try to get through to the delectibles on the other side.

Some of my fences were designed with this level of pressure in mind, with sturdy welded rod cattle panels. Others simply weren't. The fences between the garden and pasture were designed assuming that sheep would be on the pasture side, grazing red clover and orchard grass to their heart's content, with little interest in the mulch and vegetables on the other side. For these fences, I used "Wedge-loc" hardware and T-posts to build corner braces--some with a diagonal brace design, some with a "floating brace" design. The braces were on the garden side of the fence, where sheep wouldn't rub or put their feet on them. I watched the fences for signs of stress from livestock pressure, ready to install electric "scare wires" if needed to keep the sheep from pushing through the fence wire, and "top wires" if needed to keep the llama and sheep from trying to reach over the woven wire.

But last year the tenants dry-lotted the sheep in the north quadrants of the garden area. The sheep tried to climb the braces and fence wire to get at that forbidden grass on the other side. Scare wires weren't installed, though they would have prevented a lot of damage. Eventually, most of the diagonal brace posts were knocked down, and the corner posts pulled inward as the sheep pushed their heads through the woven wire. The electric top wires were broken by the sheep, or badly sagging from the loose corner posts.

I wanted to set up portable electric fence in an unused portion of the garden today, to let the sheep (still banned from the dodder-infested pasture) graze down some weeds and small trees. To do that I had to get electricity to that side of the garden. That meant repairing all the top wires on the damaged Willow Row fences. That meant doing something about the crippled corner posts. But what? It seemed like I would have to start from scratch, take out the old fence and completely rebuild and replace it...a huge amount of work.

Last night I suddenly thought of using the come-along (probably my most-feared non-power tools) to pull the corner posts back into position. Today I tried it out, and it worked beautifully. I even realized that over the years I have actually become proficient at using this awkward tool that has the potential to seriously damage or even remove fingers!

I hooked an automotive tow strap to the base of the corner post across the lane, then hooked on the come-along. The other end of the come-along was hooked to the top of the corner post. Slowly I rachetted the post into its correct position, east-west.

I replaced the damaged 45-degree angle Wedge-loc fitting at the top of the diagonal brace (a T-post). Then I reset the lower end of the floating brace on its brick base, and rigged a new brace wire from the lower end of the brace post to the bottom of the corner post. The brace wire assembly is a loop of smooth high-tensile fence wire, tightened by a Hayes-style "strainer" which is like a miniature come-along with a removable handle. I'll need to periodically check and re-tighten this brace wire. The brace repaired, I released the come-along, everything stayed in place, and not a scratch or crushed finger in sight!

There was already a conveniently-placed post to hook the come-along to in a similar manner to pull the corner back into north-south verticality; otherwise, I'd have driven one temporarily to have something to pull against. This side of the corner was a diagonal brace--a T-post held at the top of the corner post and the bottom of the next post by 45-degree Wedge-locs. It took a couple tries to get the post to stay in place while releasing the come-along, but in the end I succeeded.

On both corner braces, I used plastic cable ties to secure the diagonal braces to the woven wire fencing, to make them less vulnerable to being walked down by the sheep. I'll keep a close eye on the clever beasts if I have sheep in those pens, in case I need to protect the corner braces with electric scare wires.

This corner is near the new bee hive, so as I worked an occasional honeybee buzzed over to see if I was any threat. I stayed still and explained to them what I was doing, and they buzzed off again.

Then I cut down several small trees that had grown up into other sections of top wire, re-connected the top wire to the functioning portion of the electric fence system, and tested the voltage. It's running at 5000 volts, which is good. At about 3500 volts, my sheep stop respecting the electric fences. Then I began laying out the Electronet portable fencing. Tomorrow I should be able to finish the details and give the sheep a tasty treat of garden-grown bromegrass.

It's a LOT more work (and expense) than just running a lawnmower. But I feel so happy seeing the sheep happily munching--a deep sense of "God's in His heaven, all's right with the world". Though I've learned to enjoy the "happy purr" of the power mower, it just doesn't measure up to a smiling sheep!

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