Cheating to Win: Fences

There is an old saying “Good fences make good neighbours”. Except it isn’t really that old, a mere century or so. Universal fencing of properties is a relatively recent phenomenon in history. Before the industrial revolution made iron cheap building fences out of locally abundant stone or timber was a time consuming and expensive process. In many places those resources weren’t available so instead livestock were allowed to roam freely. The whole culture of fencing we are used to today was flipped on its head. If you wanted to have a livestock free space it was your responsibility to fence wandering animals out, unlike today where anyone who owns animals is expected to fence them in. Most places in history followed this pattern, with cropping fields, gardens and house yards fenced to keep roaming livestock out and a considerable portion of the land around a settlement grazed as a commons. The mass production of cheap barbed wire fencing in the late 1800s radically changed how people viewed ownership of livestock and land. The spread of the personal car was the final straw, with people unwilling to slow down to allow for wandering livestock. In many ways this fencing revolution greatly worsened the problems of mismanagement of livestock grazing since it made it easier to confine animals in spaces that were unable to support them. The dynamic and responsive grazing systems pioneered by workers like Alan Savory have showed that larger and more diverse flocks of herbivores constantly moving over larger tracts of land produce healthier ecosystems and animals. Where resources allow this can be emulated by investing in even more fencing to control grazing, though the opposite approach of combining herds and lands is showing similar success in less affluent parts of the world.

Beyond metal fencing high technology has gifted us electric fencing, which started to become widespread in the 1950s. This approach greatly reduces the amount of material needed in the fence compared to metal fences, with a single strand often sufficing for control of cattle. The efficiency is balanced though by increasing complexity since electric fences depend on reliable electricity supply, complicated integrated circuits to control the pulses, plastic insulators, and sophisticated plastic/metal lines. These materials in turn depend on long and fragile supply lines that stretch across the planet. Electric fences are also more fragile systems to operate, with a single worn out insulator, broken line or malfunctioning energiser rendering the whole system non-functional in an instant. I currently rely on electric fencing lines to control my goat herds, plus metal mesh for my poultry and the barbed wire boundary fences that came with the property to keep my neighbours cattle out. I often wonder how these various systems will hold up in our uncertain future, especially the dependency on high tech replacement parts for the electric fence system in the event of a breakdown in the global trade networks. These thoughts have encouraged me to experiment with alternatives that are even older, the use of living fences to help manage animal movement.

Most of us are vaguely aware of the European tradition of growing hedge rows as a form of living fence. These are composed of a diverse mix of species that often grow into small trees, meaning they need to be layed periodically, a highly skilled job where the branches are partially cut through, so they can be bent over and woven together, allowing them to regrow into a dense tangle. These hedgerows serve a much wider variety of roles than simply controlling livestock movement. Their bulk means they are effective wind breaks, unlike wire or electric fences. They often produce useful products such as firewood and seasonal food. Finally they are often a crucial habitat for wild life, which can have beneficial effects on the wider farm ecosystem. In our subtropical zone there is a much wider range of potential hedging species to explore, and in the tropics there is a long tradition of using various plant species to make living fences. A desirable hedging species needs to meet a long list of requirements and few species can do all at once. Different species have different capacity to contain different animal species as well. A good hedging species needs to be easy to propagate and establish, fast to establish, ideally only grow to the desired height so maintenance is minimal, and produce a dense and animal resistant growth form. Other desirable traits include the ability to produce some useful product, and wildlife support potential. I will outline how the various species I have trialled have measured up.

Mexican sunflower (Tithonia diversifolia) was one of the first hedging plants that I experimented with. It got out to an early lead since it is very easy to propagate, with unrooted cuttings sunk directly into the ground in autumn giving very high strike rates. A single mature bush will produce about one hundred such cuttings, and they can grow to their full height of 2 m in a single year. Like is usually the case fast growth comes at the price of flimsy wood. On the upside this makes cutting them back easy since even old stems are quite soft, but it means that animals like goats can push through dense clumps and snap branches. Goats don’t kill the shrubs when they graze them directly, but they do tend to beat them up a fair bit. The density of the growth is quite low underneath the bushes so poultry can move through them easily. The geese also strip the bark when confined in night pens surrounded by Tithonia, which doesn’t kill them but sets them back a bit. All of these factors together mean that Tithonia is not really suited as a hedging species, but it can be very useful as a fast growing nurse species as other better species that grow more slowly establish very well through Tithonia. Such quick hedges are very effective when combined with electric fences. Larger animals can often gradually push their way through even a fairly dense hedge given time and motivation. The can also often run under or jump over a single electric line if they are brave and quick. When you run a single electric line on the inside of even a flimsy hedge they synergise so the animals cannot move quickly enough to get past the electric fence in time. The visual barrier of even a flimsy hedge can also be an effective psychological barrier since many animals will be reluctant to go places that cannot see first. The grass is not greener on the other side if you cannot see it.

More promising is Malvaviscus arboreus (sometimes called turkcap), a Hibiscus relative that grows into a tangled shrub up to 3 m tall. They are covered in nodding red flowers which produce ample nectar for small birds, and host significant grasshopper and caterpillar populations for insect eaters. There is a form with crisp edible fruit as well that I am currently trialling that should be somewhat like a rosella, and the flowers are also somewhat edible. I have planted a dense hedge of this on the outer edge of my goat paddocks and I have been very impressed with its performance. It is a bit slower to establish, with my original plants grown from cuttings that were rooted in the greenhouse. I have since found that unrooted cuttings will establish reliably when planted underneath established Tithonia hedges during wet weather. This species is also browsed by the goats, but they usually leave the bark alone so it recovers quickly. The branches are very elastic and grow at all sorts of odd angles, forming a dense network. I suspect once fully established with sufficiently close spacing this species will hold back grazing goats even without an electric line. Taller plants like Leucaena seed nicely through the stands, adding extra density and higher quality fodder which can be pruned out and tossed to the goats. I suspect vines like muscadine grape and brambles like Atherton raspberry would also establish nicely through the tangle and increase its effectiveness while also producing a useful amount of fruit and more diverse goat forage. I suspect such hedgerows will still benefit from having a human present to graze with the herd, ready to provide a sharp whack with a long stick if they start exploring the depths of the hedge and risk breaking through. My herd requires about 90 minutes to graze twice a day. Traditionally this job would be given to older children. In a world without electric fencing this pleasant job might return.

An even slower but stronger hedging species is Calliandra haematocephala. This large shrub can grow to 4 m tall and produces pink pom-pom flowers that supply ample nectar for birds. If kept pruned it is capable of forming dense stands of thin stems, meaning that goats grazing the outer layers are unable to access the interior of the plant. The plants under my conditions are very slow to establish, but the dense older wood has the same thermal density as black coal so it makes excellent fuel for rocket stoves. They can be propagated by cuttings, but if you are observant you can collect seed before the pods shatter, making mass propagation easier and giving plants with stronger root systems. I suspect with soil that has a more typical mineral balance they would grow a bit faster. I have seedlings that are five years old that are about 1-2 m tall at most, consisting of a single flimsy stem or five. They will take a decade more at least at this rate to fill out. That said the immature plants are very tolerant of other species growing over them. I think for me the ideal progression is Tithonia to begin, with alternative Malvaviscus and Calliandra planted under them, with randomly sowed Leucaena and vines throughout. This type of hedge should be able to withstand limited direct goat grazing within a decade or two, during which time it will greatly enhance the function of electric fencing while also producing much needed fodder during droughts (a time when I typically cut back Tithonia and throw over the electric line to the goats).

All of these hedging species have the benefit and problem of being potential fodder species that need protecting when they are young, and being unable to withstand a really determined goat with a lot of time on its hooves. To fill this final gap in my living goat hedge roster I am hopeful that Aloe arborescens will fit the bill. This shrubby Aloe comes from east Africa, with a very similar climate to ours. They grow commonly in abandoned gardens here, and are found as remnant living fences around abandoned homesteads in Africa. They grow readily from small cuttings planted directly, but take about 5 years to fill out. This also means the generation time for one plant getting big enough to propagate again is quite long, though growing from seed might be a way to speed up mass propagation but would require two distinct clones to cross. They are spiny and bitter enough to deter goats, and have a dense growth form that extends to the ground, but are not so spiny as to be unmanageable. They also produce large spikes of nectar filled flowers in winter and have some minor herbal uses. The surplus biomass from the hedges can be somewhat problematic since it is succulent enough to not die readily when pruned, so it can regrow if left on the ground. If pruning material is piled up most of it dies in time and the few survivors can be dealt with before they establish. This species is likely to be gradually established around my external boundaries, in anticipation of a time when I may not be able to replace the crumbling barbed wire structures. Or maybe in that case a return to a culture of wandering livestock and fenced gardens will return and I can just use it to protect my cropping areas.

Finally it is worth mentioning the very different requirements for fencing poultry. I am currently about to repurpose a large amount of 90 cm high chicken mesh to seal off my orchard to contain my poultry there. The geese also go into night pens that are part of the vegetable garden rotation. From my trials there I have found that not many species have the required density close to ground level combined with goose resistance. Chickens are even better at squeezing through low gaps. Lemon grass is a bit too short and is grazed down by the geese, and tends to die out in winter. Vetiver grass looks like being the best option since geese barely touch it, and it is dense enough right to the ground provided it is planted closely enough, ideally in two rows that are slightly offset from each other. This species also produces useful mulch for the garden and bedding for the goats and geese. Its main downside is that it is a bit slow to propagate up to large numbers (the price paid for it being a well behaved sterile clone), and dividing clumps and establishing them is a little demanding, working best during the hot and wet time of the year (usually when other jobs take precedence). Vetiver has a very vertical root system meaning minimal competition with crops growing nearby. For the goose night pens I believe I will need to rely on a built structure to achieve the security I need with valuable crops nearby. My favourite approach is what I call a trash fence. Short upright bamboo poles are driven into the ground about 15 cm apart, spaced every 1-2 m along the fence. This creates a support system where all manner of flimsy branches can be pushed between the uprights, especially the twiggy upper sections of bamboo. I like this system because it reuses waste branches from feeding the goats, and it can be repaired on the fly. If an upright fails another can be put in its place. If the twiggy matter slowly compacts and decay more can be piled on top.

Zero input agriculture is like a game of Jenga where one support after another is removed, though our game differs in that we have the opportunity to put blocks back to fill in gaps and keep the structure standing. Like the ship of Theseus eventually none of the industrial components will remain. Fencing is one of these key elements and establishing post-industrial alternatives will take about a generation at least. Best get cracking and start your own experiments with hedges and living fences.

A mature Aloe arborescens. This uncommon form is more upright than the one I usually see.
A recently pruned Malvaviscus, showing the tangle of branches in its core.
Tithonia hedge showing extensive goose damage in a vegetable bed/night pen. These will be replaced with vetiver soon.
A double fence of vetiver grass (left) and lemon grass (right) in a vegetable bed. Often mixing species produces a better result.
A more mature vetiver hedge where the crowns have formed a solid wall, bounded by an electric tape line.
A mature Malvaviscus hedge and electric line, with a self sown Leucaena podding up.

7 thoughts on “Cheating to Win: Fences

  1. Osage Orange (Maclura Pomifera), American plum(Prunus Americana), and Hawthorn (Crataegus ssp) are the best choices for my region. I did an experiment with Hawthorn and Osage Orange, but was not able to tend it properly, and it succumbed to weed pressure before the trees were large enough to fend for themselves.

    I will try again. Osage Orange has one of the highest btu heating values for firewood, at 32MBTU per cord. At one time, Osage Orange was used for fencing, especially in the plain states, but wire took over.

    All three require ongoing maintenance, with a fair bit of hard work. There are virtually no hedges or skilled practitioners of hedge laying in the U.S., so it will be a learn as I go thing.

    Fencing of one kind or another will be around for a while. Even in this area of relatively low population density, we aren’t ready for commons grazing. I expect we will use electric fence for internal rotational grazing partitioning.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. They are all great species in more temperate areas. I tried osage orange and hawthorn here and while they didn’t die they just sat there wondering what to do. Finding which species suit your conditions is another process you need to go through, adding a few more years to the long process of growing a functional hedge row. It makes you wonder what the story was of the ancient European hedge rows being established way back in history. They didnt have electric fences to make establishing them easier.

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  2. A good article to read.
    I originally come from Europe (Netherlands) and there are still some vague representations of hedges visible. In fact now a days its common for ornamental gardens and vegetable gardens to have living hedges for the sake of beauty and privacy. Deep in the countryside a few functional living hedges can still be seen for cows. In Netherlands I also worked on a cattle farm for a while where a combination of electric, wooden fences, and canals where used. The most common fencing and border control in Netherlands is actually small canals and rivers, literally every farm in Netherlands be it for livestock or vegetables has canals around it. The farms are accessed trough a small bridge. Once in a while a cow or horse ends up falling in the canals and has to be rescued or drowns. These canals were created around the 17th century with new land distribution laws, and the canals are still functional to this day and have become a integral part of the landscape and culture. Back then the canals were made using a combination of windmills, hand-digging, and draft animals. Now a days there are strict laws with the maintenance of these canals which the farmer has to do. My grandfather had to periodically scythe the grass around the canals so the canals would not choke up, decreasing fish population and biodiversity. In the modern day its done with tractors and excavators. The water quality and biodiversity of the canals has been suffering lately because of fertilizer and cow feces run-off.

    Coming to the Philippines I did not see any sort of hedging and very little border control. The only borders I have seen is made using bamboo which is widely available here. Livestock are simply controlled with ropes. A rope is tied around each neck of the animal, be it cow, horse, goat, and even chickens. These are then individually tied to posts in the ground or a the nearest tree. The farmer will then come every 3 to 6 hours or once every 24 hours to re-tie the rope and put the animal somewhere else until the whole land is grazed. I do not think this is a very efficient system of management as the livestock has very little space to walk around and the area is quickly overgrazed. The length of the rope is on average 10 meters. In fact the pastures here are so overgrazed that farmers are manually cutting grass from far a away places and bringing it all the way to their livestock. Most of the farmers here kind of have a common ownership over their livestock (mostly because they are distant family from each other) that’s why livestock is grazed on differently owned pastures and there is no need for fences.

    Have you ever thought of Spondias purpurea (siniguelas) or Moringa oleifera as a live fence for a hedge? I try to use them as hedges and they are quite good.

    I am thinking of getting a few goats maybe next year for weed control, so I am always curious reading your blog.
    Sadly I can not use any type of electric fencing, because I do not have enough electricity for it. I barely have enough electricity to run a refrigerator and a few light bulbs powered by a solar panel. There is also a risk the electric fencing would get stolen.

    When I started my farm I did not allow any form of livestock on my land, because the soil was severely degraded and there was barely any vegetation. People also used my land as a road and walked everywhere. When I forbid livestock and people on the land, the locals became upset. Soon after I experienced vandalism. The entire farm was burned down to the ground; farm tools stolen; house property stolen; and vegetables garden destroyed by trampling on all the seedlings. Even after that locals still put their livestock on our land After this a barbed wire fence was built around the entire farm and after that the no livestock nor people ever came on the land again.
    So your quote “Good fences make good neighbours” has been literally true, and since building a barbed wire fence my relationship with the locals and neighbours has improved.
    Actually there was another farmer who is not from the area and recently a lot of his papayas were stolen off his trees. He did not have any fencing, but after that incident he constructed a large barbed wire fence around his farm and since then has been no theft.

    Now all the other farmers are jealous of our tall grass, because all their lands are overgrazed and there is barely grass for their livestock. Regularly people ask me for free grass to feed their livestock. Recently I have even seen someone who secretly went on our land and literally cut and stole grass to feed his cow. Obviously I refuse giving out grass as I use it for fertilizers and mulch for the trees and vegetables. The people here do not understand using grass for fertilizers as they all use chemical fertilizers, I am the only Zero Input Organic/Natural Farmer here.

    Sorry if this comment was too long, just wanted to share my perspective on fences.

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    1. I love long comments like this, and your experience is really interesting to follow as well. I wanted to explore earth works combining with fencing (like ha-ha fencing), but the post was already way too long and I don’t have direct experience.The Netherlands approach sounds like a great way to use local resources to do the job. Spondias is probably too tropical for me for fencing, and Moringa only grow painfully slowly on our low calcium soil. Do people ever use bougainvillea or agaves for fencing in the phillipines? If you grow sisal agave as a fence it doubles as a source of excellent fiber for cordage etc. Both are thorny enough to stop people and animals pushing through. I wouldnt use bougainvillea myself since it is so vicious and needs some maintenance unless you have a lot of space, and pruned branches are terrible if stepped on.

      I’ve seen developing places use living uprights combined with horizontal wire for fencing to reduce some of the cost. The system you describe of roping and pegging animals is pretty widespread, but I agree it is very limiting on the animals. In tropical areas I have seen villages convert to keeping animals confined on raised, slatted floors. This is coupled to banks of fodder plants that are good for cutting and carrying to feed the animals. You get to collect all the manure and urine as well. The animal raising becomes a little more labor intensive but the capacity for vegetation to grow everywhere without protection makes it worthwhile (and you can raise higher quality animals like top notch milk goats this way which may not cope with ranging or roping). Another way to turn the whole fencing issue inside out so everyone benefits.

      It is encouraging to hear that you have managed to claim psychological ownership of your land after all that trouble. Planting something colourful around the boundary can often have that effect of just letting people know the space is cared for by someone. Maybe if you can discover some useful animal fodder shrub and tree species you can share them around the village to help everyone meet their livestock feed needs, especially during dry spells. I can send you some Tithonia seed to try if you like as it grows incredibly fast under hot/wet conditions.

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      1. Thank you for the detailed reply.

        I have never seen anyone here use bougainvillea or agaves for fences. These 2 are usually grown in the town proper or the city as ornamental plants. Especially bougainvillea is used for decorating metal or wooden fences or for arched gates.

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  3. Great post on the features of different hedging species. We’re really accustomed to the typical metal fencing, but it’s good to learn about the different options for fencing in poultry and other farm animals. How do these species hold up in colder climates? We live in Canada, so the weather swings wildly from sweltering hot to well below freezing.

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    1. We are in the subtropics so none of the specific species mentioned would be great choices. There is a rich tradition of hedge laying in colder climates with locally adapted species to tap into though.

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