Story: Farm fencing

Page 3. Wire fencing

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Wire fencing provides a visual and physical barrier to stock. It is erected in sections, with the wires tied to strainer posts at each end of the section (called a strain). Intermediate posts are put in at intervals between the strainers to support the wires. Battens, droppers, waratahs or standards hold the wires in place between the intermediate posts. When the wires are strained tightly and supported in this way, stock are unable to push between them or go over or under the fence.

White wire

The 1860 Cattle Trespass Ordinance in Canterbury stated that wire fences had to be white, to make them clearly visible. Up to that time, wire had not been widely used and the legislators were clearly mistrustful of the new technology.

The introduction of wire fencing

Heavy annealed iron wire was available in the 1850s, but it was very thick and only came in short lengths. Consequently, it was hard to work and to keep taut. However, after the English inventor Henry Bessemer patented the process that led to the mass production of steel in 1855, lighter-gauge wire was produced relatively cheaply. From about 1864, newspaper advertisements for large quantities of wire and iron standards became common.

Early fencing

When Robert Heaton Rhodes purchased Blue Cliffs sheep station in South Canterbury in 1878, the property had about 105 kilometres of wire fencing – including 44 kilometres on the boundaries, 50 kilometres subdividing blocks and paddocks, 10 kilometres protecting shelter belts, and over 1 kilometre on top of sod walls at the homestead. There were also 45 kilometres of ditch and bank fencing.

Sheep station fences

A typical wire fence erected on the sheep stations of the South Island in the 1860s and 1870s consisted of five plain wires with iron standards nine feet (2.7 metres) apart and 10 strainer posts to each mile (1.6 kilometres). Some runholders soon began fencing on a large scale.

John Grigg of Longbeach, near Ashburton, called for tenders for 20 miles (32 kilometres) of wire fencing in 1866. On Orari Gorge Station, Charles George Tripp had 48 kilometres of fencing up by 1871, and had doubled that by 1874. Moa Flat Station, between Dunedin and Alexandra, had 402 kilometres of wire fencing by the middle of 1879.

Impact on farm management

The widespread use of fast, flexible wire fencing changed management methods on stations and farms:

  • Station owners no longer needed to employ boundary keepers.
  • With their boundaries fenced, pastoralists could prevent contagious diseases spreading from neighbouring properties and infecting their stock.
  • Fences within a property made it easier to manage.
  • Mustering was easier as sheep were no longer run on such large blocks of land.
  • Different classes of stock – ewes, hoggets, wethers and rams – could be run separately, so that young sheep and ewes with lambs could have preferential feeding.
  • Sheep could be made to graze on the areas they normally avoided, allowing their preferred areas to recover from heavy grazing.

Siting a fence

The techniques of setting up wire fences, especially on hills and high country, took some learning. The position of fence lines proved to be crucial. The strain on a fence crossing a rise would pull the standards and wires into the ground, so that stock could jump over. Similarly, a fence that crossed boggy ground tended to sink. On the other hand, fences traversing steep gullies, if not sufficiently tied down, could pull out of the ground so that stock could walk under them.

So a fence had to run straight up a slope rather than across it. Even better was to site it on a ridge where it was less susceptible to damage from snow, slips, or falling rocks and boulders.

Built to last

Rotherham farmer Daniel Danielson was said to be the best fencer in Canterbury’s Amuri district. He put up hundreds of kilometres of fencing, which one local described as ‘like a steel wall, heavily netted, true to a fraction of an inch. You could butt up against it, and not get a quiver out of it’. 1

Rapid uptake

Through trial and error, farmers soon became adept at the new technology. By 1878, 77% of New Zealand’s fenced area was enclosed with wire – 82% of it in the South Island. Farming had expanded much more rapidly in the South Island and there was no cheap alternative to wire fencing, whereas in the north there was a ready supply of timber.

Barbed wire

By early 1879 barbed wire appeared in New Zealand, where it was initially known as American wire. It was used more widely where cattle were farmed, but it became common for the top wire on most fences to be barbed. There have always been concerns about barbed wire because of the damage it does to the hides of livestock. In recent years, barbed wire has been replaced by an electric wire, which does not damage the pelt and is more likely to discourage cattle from pushing against the fence.

  1. Quoted in W. J. Gardner, The Amuri: a county history. 2nd ed. Christchurch: Caxton/Amuri County Council, 1983, p. 229. › Back
How to cite this page:

Robert Peden, 'Farm fencing - Wire fencing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Robert Peden, published 24 Nov 2008