Story: Farm fencing

Stone fence post, Central Otago

When a frightened sheep suddenly appears in your path as you hurtle along a country road, you realise the importance of keeping livestock enclosed – and that’s just one of many reasons for farm fencing. Over time, New Zealand’s rural landscape has been criss-crossed with different types of fence, including the traditional post-and-rail, the hugely successful No. 8 wire fence, and the electric fence.

Story by Robert Peden
Main image: Stone fence post, Central Otago

Story summary

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Why do farms need fencing?

Fencing is needed to:

  • prevent livestock from straying to other farms
  • keep livestock out of paddocks so crops can grow
  • keep out rabbits
  • fence off areas that are dangerous to livestock
  • protect waterways from livestock.

Early fencing methods

Arriving from the 1840s onwards, European settlers needed to enclose their farm animals, and to protect their crops, gardens and orchards from being eaten by animals. Farmers used materials that were close at hand. Smaller farms often had stone walls, hedges, and fences consisting of wooden posts with long wooden rails running between them. Some farmers dug ditches and heaped the soil into a wall, so that livestock could not cross.

The big South Island sheep stations employed men as boundary keepers because it was impractical to have fences. Living in remote huts, they kept watch on the sheep day and night.

Wire fencing

By the 1860s, lightweight wire was available. Farmers soon put up wire fences, which were fairly cheap and quick to build. They could divide the land into smaller areas, making it easier to manage sheep. By 1878, 77% of New Zealand’s fenced areas were enclosed with wire.

Today, at the National Fieldays events, fencers compete to put up post-and-wire fences in the shortest time.

South and north

Most wire fencing was on South Island sheep stations, where timber was rarer and more expensive. The early fences had five wires, and metal posts. From the 1900s, many sheep station fences had six wires with a top barbed wire.

The North Island had more cattle, and more timber. Cattle can do more damage to fencing than sheep, so the fences were heavier, with wooden posts and battens, and two runs of barbed wire.

Electric fencing

The invention of the electric fence changed farm fencing from the 1960s onwards. After receiving a short electric shock from the wire, livestock soon learned to stay in their enclosures. Electric fences are cheaper to build, and farmers could put them up or move them quickly. Many added one or two electric wires to existing fences.

Deer fencing

Deer can jump over normal fences, so higher fencing was needed for deer farms. New Zealand’s Cyclone company made the world’s first deer fence netting in 1967 – 1.9 metres high.

How to cite this page:

Robert Peden, 'Farm fencing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 April 2024)

Story by Robert Peden, published 24 November 2008