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Farm fencing

by  Robert Peden

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.

Reasons for fencing on farms

There is an old saying, ‘good fences make good neighbours’. The implication is that without good boundary fences, disputes arise. However, the ideal of creating discrete, independent properties is only one reason for building fences. Even in earlier communal societies, fencing was important for protecting crops and managing animals. Today the varied reasons for fencing on farms include the following:

Stock management

Fences prevent stock from straying from one farm to another, and help to manage stock breeding. They make moving stock easy with little labour, and create laneways, yards and races for handling stock.

Land and pasture management

With more and smaller paddocks created by fencing, stocking can be more intensive. Paddocks can also be spelled to build up a feed supply.

Fencing forces stock to graze a wider range of plants, and allows the plants to recover after grazing. This uses the pastures better and prevents them from becoming overgrazed or too rank.

Crop, stock and land protection

Fences protect crops from pests such as rabbits. They keep stock off snow-prone country in winter and isolate unhealthy or diseased animals. Areas that are dangerous for stock are separated off. Plantations, native bush, shelter belts and waterways are also protected.

Legal requirements

Boundary fencing requirements must be met and stock prevented from wandering.

Fencing language

  • Strainer post: Fences are built in sections called strains. A fencer marks out the line for the fence, then puts strainer posts at each end of the section. Strainers are heavier and longer than the other posts and have to stay in place when the wire is tightened or ‘strained’.
  • Stay: A stay is part of a strainer assembly. It leans on an angle against the strainer post on the side of the strain to stop it from being pulled over when the fence is tightened.
  • Intermediate posts. These are smaller than strainer posts, and hold the fence upright and the wire in place.
  • Staples: U-shaped nails sharpened at each end are placed over a wire to fix it to a post or batten.
  • Battens: Four or five wooden battens are placed between intermediate posts to hold the wires the correct distance apart so stock cannot push through. They are not inserted into the soil.
  • Waratah: These are metal posts with a Y-shaped cross-section that are driven into the ground and may be used instead of intermediate posts. They have holes drilled through one of the arms to hold the wires.
  • Standard: Flat iron standards were common in old South Island fences. They are driven into the ground and have holes drilled through them to hold the fence wires in place.
  • Dropper: These are used between intermediate posts, waratahs or standards instead of battens, to hold the wires in place. They may be made of galvanised light metal or heavy wire.

Fencing laws

Laws controlling fencing and the trespass of livestock were passed as early as 1842. In 1847 an ordinance stipulated that the costs of erecting and maintaining boundary fencing should be shared between neighbours. Settlers soon resorted to the courts to settle trespass and fencing disputes. Within a year of the first Canterbury colonists arriving in December 1850, a dispute over fencing was brought before the resident magistrate.

The Fencing Act 1978 sets out regulations for the erection and repair of boundary fences (including farm fencing) with guidelines for acceptable types of fencing for the purpose. The act also sets out the rights and responsibilities of adjoining landowners in terms of the building, maintenance and costs of the fence.

Early fencing methods

The earliest fencing systems used by European settlers in New Zealand were designed not to manage stock, but to protect crops, gardens and orchards from them. A variety of methods were used, depending on the materials available.

Rising from the ashes

Tōtara was a favourite fencing timber in the North Island, and easy to find – after the native bush was felled and burned, many charred tōtara logs littered the countryside. Before re-burning the land, settlers would split the logs into posts and bury them where they could be used later. After the second fire, they dug up the posts and used them for fencing.

Post-and-rail fences

Where timber was readily accessible, post-and-rail fencing was the preferred method as it was cheap and relatively easy to erect. This type of fencing had been developed in forested areas of the eastern United States and was also used in the timbered parts of Australia. Some substantial lengths of post-and-rail fences were erected in New Zealand in the early period of settlement. The first fencing on Orari Gorge Station in South Canterbury was put up in the late 1850s, with 8 kilometres of posts and four rails.

Ditch-and-bank fences

Pastoralists and farmers in the open grasslands of the South Island did not have ready access to native bush, and timber was expensive, so they preferred ditch-and-bank fences. This method was well established in parts of the British Isles, and used in the open prairies in the USA.

Commonly, ditch and bank fences consisted of a ditch three feet (90 centimetres) deep and five feet (1.5 metres) wide at the top, narrowing to a foot (30 centimetres) wide at the bottom, with a three-foot-high bank formed from the spoil. So a newly built fence was a six-foot (1.8- metre) barrier. In time, the bank tended to settle, so hedges were planted to hold the bank together and to add height to the fence. Gorse was a favourite plant for this purpose as it was fast growing, but broom and various thorny species were also used.

There were variations on ditch and bank fences. Sometimes a ditch was dug on each side of the bank. An alternative to planting a hedge was to erect a post-and-two-rail fence on top of the bank. Where the soil type was suitable, settlers built sod walls and planted gorse to strengthen them.

Recycled rock

In the Whangārei district, 156 kilometres of stone walls were built between the 1850s and the 1930s – the greatest extent of this type of fencing in New Zealand. When the settlers arrived, volcanic rock littered the ground. They cleared the land for cultivation, saving the rock to build walls. These were made without mortar, using the double-dyke method: two outer rows of stone, with the space between packed with smaller stones.

Stone walls

Stone walls were traditionally used as fencing in parts of Britain. In New Zealand they were built where there was a ready supply of suitable stone. In volcanic areas, such as parts of North Auckland, the Tāmaki isthmus and Otago Peninsula, settlers cleared the stone off the ground and put up extensive stone walls. Like ditch and bank fences, they were laborious to erect and therefore expensive. But once built they were durable, and they also provided shelter for stock.


Settlers planted hedges, known to farmers as live fences, as these were cheap to establish – the material cost was low and planting required little labour. Once established they provided shelter from the wind on the open grasslands.

A disadvantage was the time needed for a hedge to grow dense enough to form an adequate barrier for stock. They also needed regular trimming to maintain a tight form, otherwise gaps developed where sheep could push through. Perhaps the most serious problem with live fences was that the best plants – gorse, broom and various thorns – proved to be highly invasive, and have taken over many thousands of acres in both the North and South islands.

When the grass looks greener

In the 1860s writer and station owner Samuel Butler reported on how to make sheep stay on their own turf: ‘Directly [they] reach the boundary show yourself with your dog in your most terrific aspect. Startle them, frighten them; do so again and again, at the same spot, from the very first day. Let them always have peace on their own run, and none anywhere off it. In a month or two you will find the sheep begin to understand your meaning.’ 1

Boundary keepers

Early types of fence were suitable only for enclosing fairly small areas – the extensive open country where sheep grazed was left unfenced. On the big sheep stations of the South Island, pastoralists employed boundary keepers to hold the sheep on their runs. These men lived in remote huts and often had no contact with other people for months at a time. Their daily round was spent on the hill with the sheep. In the high country, merino sheep camp in mobs high on ridges and spurs at night, and during the day they move down to the lower slopes and flats as they graze. In the evening they make their way back up to their camps. The boundary keeper needed to be away early in the morning to keep watch on his charges, and stayed on the hill until he saw the sheep back in their camps at night.

    • Samuel Butler, A first year in Canterbury settlement. Christchurch: Kiwi, 1997, p. 151 (originally published 1863). › Back

Wire fencing

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

Types of wire fence

North Island

The traditional North Island fence was more heavily built and more expensive than those in the South Island. North Island hill soils, prone to slipping after heavy rainfall, pulled a fence off line and slackened the tension of the wires, making the fence less stock-proof. Also, stocking rates were generally higher and farms carried a higher proportion of cattle, which are much harder on fences than sheep.

Fences consisted of five plain wires and two runs of barbed wire, with five posts and 25 wooden battens every 20 metres. Fixing wooden battens closely together between the posts helped make a fence rigid and stock-proof even after it had moved during a slip.

No. 1 for ingenuity

Through the first half of the 20th century No. 8 wire (named for its gauge, equivalent to 4 mm) was the most widely used fencing wire. It is also used for a huge range of tasks and fix-it jobs, leading to the notion of New Zealanders’ ‘No. 8 wire mentality’– where anything can be made or repaired with basic materials.

South Island

A traditional fence in the South Island consisted of six plain wires and a barbed top wire, with posts every 20 metres and 10 light metal battens or three Y-standards set between them. Timber was less readily available, so farmers used concrete or iron posts, and wooden battens were not common. In the drier and colder climate of the eastern coast the stocking rate was lower than in the North Island, so that there was less pressure on the fences.

Rabbit fences

Hundreds of kilometres of rabbit-proof fences were built in response to a rabbit plague in some areas in the 1870s and 1880s. One fence ran between Hawke’s Bay and the Wairarapa, two were constructed in North Canterbury, and another in South Canterbury. Commonly, these fences consisted of four wires running between iron posts and standards. Rabbit netting was clipped to the wires and the lower section buried in the ground to prevent rabbits burrowing underneath. However, none managed to halt the rabbit invasion.

High-tensile and electric fencing

High-tensile wire

In the 1960s a new type of wire was introduced. High-tensile 12½ gauge (2.5-millimetre) wire offered an economic benefit over the iconic No. 8 wire. Although it is less pliable and more difficult to cut and tie, you get more length of 2.5-millimetre gauge per tonne, and it is therefore much cheaper. In the 2000s, farmers use about five times as much 2.5-millimetre gauge fencing wire as they do No. 8.

Olympic fencing

A fencing competition has been held every year at the National Fieldays, New Zealand’s largest agricultural event, since it began in 1969. The competition attracts the cream of the country’s fencing contractors. In the singles final, competitors have to erect a 50-metre post-and-wire fence strung with nine 2.5-millimetre wires. A similar fence is built in the doubles competition, except that more posts are required and the two top wires are electrified.

Tanalised timber

Until the 1950s, wooden posts and battens for fencing were cut from native timber. Tōtara was the most popular as it lasted well in the ground. Exotic pine, although cheap and plentiful, was not used as it rotted when in contact with the soil. This changed with the advent of tanalising. Radiata pine treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) is much more resistant to rotting and makes cheap posts, battens and timber for fencing. Most farm fences built in New Zealand since the 1960s have been made of tanalised pine posts and 2.5- millimetre gauge high-tensile wire.

Electric fencing

Perhaps the most revolutionary advance in fencing since steel wire in the 1860s has been the electric fence. This exploits the learned response of stock to a short, sharp electric shock when they come in contact with the wire.

It was not a New Zealand invention, but local farmers and inventors have been leaders in its development. Bill Gallagher and Herbert Christie, working separately, designed and built electric fence energisers in New Zealand about 1938. At the same time, William Riddet was also working on the concept at Massey Agricultural College (now Massey University).

At first, electric fencing was used to support existing wire fences and as temporary fencing for cattle. In 1958, trials on permanent electrified fencing were conducted at Massey, and introduced a radical change in fencing methods.

Advantages and disadvantages

Since they do not need to provide a heavy physical barrier, electric fences can be built much more cheaply than traditional fences. They need fewer posts and wires, and require less labour to put up. Although the system works on high voltage, it also has a low amperage, and the way the current pulses makes it safe for humans, even though they can receive a shock.

However, there are disadvantages. Since electric fences rely on a high-voltage current, any loss in power reduces their ability to control stock. Attention to detail is vital for the system to work properly. The fences also need to be checked regularly to pre-empt any faults. When faults do occur they are often difficult to find. So there is a much higher labour input to maintain electric fences than traditional fences.

Electric fencing and intensive grazing

Electric fencing has transformed intensive livestock farming. Break-feeding of fodder crops for wintering and fattening stock has been practised in New Zealand since the 1870s. In this system a paddock of saved feed is divided into breaks so that stock have access to only part of the crop at any one time; this reduces trampling and wastage.

Before the days of electric fencing, breaks were made with netting and wooden stakes, and it was a laborious job to erect and dismantle them. Lightweight electric fencing materials have made the task much less labour intensive. Livestock farmers can now use their saved feed and fodder crops more efficiently, and thereby better manage the nutrition of their animals.

Powering electric fences

Permanent electric fences are usually powered by the mains power that runs the homestead and farm buildings. Often the main feed line to the fence is run from the farm workshop or woolshed. Permanent electric fences on remote parts of the farm often use a solar panel that charges a battery.

Temporary and portable electric fences used for break feeding can be powered from the mains supply. Often they are run by solar-charged batteries.

Deer fencing

Deer farming in New Zealand would not have been possible without the development of purpose-built fences. Deer are flighty animals that can comfortably leap traditional fences, or push between wires that are tightly strained. A New Zealand company, Cyclone, made the world’s first deer netting fence in 1967. Deer fences are required to be 1.9 metres high and are normally constructed of tanalised pine posts and netting designed specifically for holding deer.


Yards are vital for managing livestock. They are used for sorting stock into different classes, or separating sale and prime animals. Yards contain stock for health treatment, shearing, mating, weighing, and for loading onto trucks to go to sales or freezing works.

Yards are usually located centrally on a farm, next to the shearing shed. Temporary, portable yards may be set up elsewhere as required. Many yards have some cover, at least over the drafting race, to shade workers and stock.

Sheep yards

Sheep yard fences are generally about a metre high, to prevent sheep from jumping over them, and consist of four or five spaced boards. Modern yards may be built of galvanised steel pipes and sheeting.

Sheep yards comprise a large holding yard that leads into a smaller yard and then into an even smaller ‘forcing’ yard. From the forcing yard, sheep are pushed into a drafting race, which is the width of two or three sheep and narrows in the last three metres to the width of one sheep. At the far end of the race, drafting gates are used to divert sheep into different pens. Usually there are two gates, to divide the mob three ways. However, some yards have an extra gate immediately behind the first two, so the sheep can be divided five ways.

The drafting race is where sheep are drenched, with an anthelmintic to kill internal parasites, and treated with a pour-on dip to kill external parasites. The race also holds sheep while they are given ear tags to permanently identify them, or they are marked with coloured raddle (a water-soluble dye) to identify them for drafting. At weaning time, ewes and lambs are run through the race to separate the mothers from their offspring.

Initially, sheep yards had a rectangular layout, with the drafting race in the middle of the complex. However, stock tend to move better in circular yards, and since the 1980s these have become more popular.

Cattle yards

Cattle yards work on the same principle as sheep yards, except they are built of heavier timber and the walls are higher. There are a few other differences. Often cattle are drafted in open yards rather than through drafting gates. Handlers use staffs to direct the cattle they want away from the mob, and guide them to a separate pen. The drafting race is mainly a working area where calves are ear-marked, tagged and castrated, and cattle are treated for internal and external parasites. Scales for weighing cattle are kept towards the end of the drafting race, and there is usually a head bale in which cattle can be clamped by the neck to be treated for problems.

Deer yards

Deer are naturally flighty animals and difficult to handle. They run best if the entrance to the yard is hidden from view, and the ideal access to yards from paddocks is through a curved raceway. The raceway leads into a large yard with solid walls. Off this are smaller yards that can hold 15–20 deer, and a covered yard for up to 10 deer. Many farms have a central circular yard with gates pivoted in the centre for a 360-degree swing. A feature of modern yards is a hydraulic crush, in which the sides of the pen move in and out and the floor moves up and down. These crushes can become pens about 1.2 metres wide for close work with deer, or made larger to accommodate more animals. The crush is useful for holding large and unpredictable wapiti deer. They are handled from outside the pen.

Gates and other barriers

Gateways, providing access for stock, vehicles and people, are part of any fencing system. Many types have been used over the years. Early gates were modelled on wooden hurdles, used to make temporary pens for sheep. More substantial wooden gates, which were swung on hinges, were put up where a gateway was frequently used. Most modern gates follow this pattern, but are made of galvanised pipe and heavy wire mesh.

Taranaki gates

The Taranaki gate is part of the tradition of ‘making do’ when money or materials are in short supply. Originally it was made of five plain wires and one or two lengths of barbed wire, held in place by wooden battens. The gates were tricky for novices to open and close, and easily became tangled. Taranaki gates are still found throughout New Zealand – modern ones are made from wire netting. Despite their name, there is no evidence that the gates were a Taranaki development.

Boundary dogs and cattle stops

One of the ways of preventing stock going through a gateway was to tie a dog nearby. Where county roads cut through a property, boundary dogs were often used rather than gates, which travellers might leave open. A local place name in the Mackenzie Country is Dog Kennel Corner, where dogs were tied to keep sheep from escaping off one station and on to the next.

Cattle stops were introduced once people started travelling in cars. These barriers allow motorists to drive through gateways without the frustration of opening and closing gates. A pit is dug across the gateway and covered with a grid of heavy pipes or railway irons, spaced about 15 centimetres apart. Stock will not normally cross a cattle stop unless under pressure. In Otago and Southland, cattle stops are sometimes known as motor gates.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Robert Peden, 'Farm fencing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Robert Peden, i tāngia i te 24 o Noema 2008