Electric Fence & Escapees

There’s so much pasture the animals haven’t been on yet! In order to get them out there, though, I need to make sure they’ll be staying where I put them, and not wandering into the next field (or the neighbors’ garden, or down the road…). I got a fence-charger and a long spool of electric twine (it has six stainless steel wires woven in), and some plastic insulating posts. There was an old charger mounted on the barn wall, which apparently powered a strand of the barbed wire that goes all the way around the farm, but I thought it would be better to start with no surprises. And I thought the three or four horses the previous people had were probably more likely to respect the barbed wire and stay where they were put. And too big to try to squeeze through between the wires.

Like many things on the farm, working with electric fencing is completely new to me (barbed wire isn’t, actually: I repaired pasture fencing while working for my adviser when I was an undergrad). But like many things on the farm, it just makes sense. The systems are pretty self-explanatory, and it seems once you get into the right frame of mind, things fit together the way they’re supposed to.

I set the posts eight small paces apart, going up the hill toward the big pasture. This will be a small paddock, and it is surrounded by our other fenced fields, in case something goes wrong. I pulled the twine through the top set of loops, and realized that the yellow poly was a great way to see if the fence-line was straight. So I corrected my post placement a little, as I strung the top strand. Looped the twine a couple of times to tighten it, and then started back down the hill. Each side of the fence is anchored to keep it tight: the near side to the barn wall and the far side to a post on the barbed wire fence (carefully, so as not to ground the twine).

There are five strands in all, and I used up about ¾ of the spool, which surprised me. The cool thing about electric fencing is that you don’t have to close the circuit. You can just end anywhere. The ANIMAL closes the circuit, by connecting the fence to the ground. This is what produces the shock – and it’s why it’s so important to drive ground stakes as the instructions specify. I didn’t, actually – I’m using the ground stakes from the previous installation. But if I don’t end up with the power I need on the fence, those old ground stakes are the most likely culprit. It’s on my longer-term to-do list…

The fence fired up when I plugged in the charger, with the classic tick-tick-tick. I tested the fence with a loop of grass, and it was working. But I thought I’d be on the safe side, so I mowed beneath the fence to minimize the grass-grounding along the way.

The fence was running when I brought the sheep back to the barn, and Bob made contact and yelped. Then he ran through it a few minutes later, in a bid to avoid going inside for the evening. But I think it would deter animals that aren’t in actual flight mode. We’ll see, I guess.

This morning I let the sheep saunter out the back door of the barn into their new paddock. They browsed calmly and I congratulated myself and went off to do some other chores. When I checked on them a while later, Bob and Bella had made their way into the back pasture (not Elsie, of course. She was right by my side all morning), where I didn’t really want them to be. Someday, but that field goes over the hill and continues an eight of a mile to the road. We want to walk before we run.

The sheep squeezed between a couple of strands of barbed wire, at the back of the paddock. I found the spot easily, from the tufts of black and brown wool the two sheep left on the barbs of the fence. There’s a lot of good eating in the paddock I made for them, and cool shade under the evergreens, so I had hoped they’d stay there. But for whatever perverse reason, they disappeared. I don’t know whether they went into the woods or crossed the fields and took off through the neighbors’ yards for greener pastures. But they were gone.

I spent a fair amount of time today walking the property – part of the time with puppies and goat in tow, then they got tired and opted to stay on the porch. It’s possible the sheep are still closeby, even on the property. If they went into the woods and decided to hide, I’d have a hard time finding them with all the underbrush. Likewise in the stands of trees that separate the fields. The nursery rhyme phrase “leave them alone and they’ll come home” came to mind. But I was not holding my breath.

I think it’s interesting that the sheep escaped through barbed wire and not through the electric fence. But if we keep sheep at all (and I was leaning against it most of the afternoon), we’ll treat them as maximum security convicts. There’s a certain look Bob gave us that I won’t mistake again. It was a “you’re the predator and I’m the prey, and I know it” look. He was right of course. In the long run, he was destined for the stew-pot or sausage mill. But that would have been in a couple of years. As it is, he may be wolf-food within the next couple of days.

Update: in the early evening, one of our neighbors from the development behind the farm came over to tell me she had a couple of sheep in her backyard and supposed they were ours. I was surprised and pleased – I guess there’s some truth to nursery rhymes. It took a little bit of creative herding to get the sheep back on our land and then out of the open fields and ultimately into the barn. The trick was, I herded them into the garage and then closed the door. The sheep, not knowing there was a backdoor, just stood there looking at me like, “Oh, shit.” While they were confused, I was able to grab Bob and guide him out the backdoor and over to the barn. Once in the barn they headed straight for their stall, and I rewarded them with some sweet feed. This procedure would not have worked on Elsie, of course, because she knows where all the doors are. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be needed for Elsie – which is something to think about when we’re planning for how many goats vs. sheep we want to keep…