There’s a saying about fences. And it’s true.
I have an extra one: “If you want to plant trees on a grazing property, you’d better have good fences.”
Not as catchy.
Only a couple of years ago I was naive enough to think that a few star pickets could prop up a fence with sagging strainer posts. But I’ve now learned that sheep and cattle are smart enough to find wherever the weak point is, and make their way through.
And if there wasn’t a weak point before, there will be one by the time they’ve finished scratching their rear ends or pushing at it.
What else does an animal have to do, standing around in a paddock all day, but plot a breakout?
I’ve been working on upgrading our old wonky fences to ones with new steel posts and metal star pickets. Frank and Andrew are in charge of minor, day to day repairs, where the wombats dig underneath and the kangaroos follow. But when the strainer posts begin to lean over, that’s time for replacement.
Many of the old fences were built fifty years ago or more. At that time it was easier and cheaper to make the fence posts as you went along rather than buy and bring them in. So a fence building project would start with chopping down some good-looking hardwood trees such as red stringbarks and sawing them off to make fence strainer posts. Others would be split to make the pickets and thinner branches would be used as stays to prop the strainer posts against the pull of the wire. An alternative to making stays was to run a wire down to the ground on the far side of the post and tie it to one or several large buried boulders. There’s always a boulder available around here. Some people would also bury boulders around the base of the strainer instead of using concrete to set it into the ground. Not easy to get out when you want to put in a new strainer, though.
That’s a short supply chain compared to the steel posts and pickets we use now, that are imported from China.
Unfortunately timber rots. And burns in a bushfire.
Last year on Adnamira Frank and the fencer Andrew Kilby replaced 32 old wooden strainer posts with steel ones. Most of them were just accessible enough that the mini concrete mixer truck could come and deliver to each one. Not many mixer drivers will take to the paddocks to do that. For the box-gum woodland this year, however, Andrew Kilby had to carry the concrete up and mix it on the spot for each post because only his four wheel drive tractor could reach the fence. It was a huge job.
Unfortunately, I was caught out by a fence we’d worked on.
One day I looked over the river and saw a group of fat black steers grazing happily in the paddock set aside for a “Whole of Paddock Restoration” through Greening Australia. It was direct seeded in 2013, but not much has come up yet except massive amounts of weeds in and out of the furrows.
Grazing cattle weren’t going to help. Although the wattle and eucalypt seedlings would be very small, grazers tend to pick them out deliberately because they’re delicious and contain minerals they need.
Mysteriously, the fence seemed okay. I assumed there was some sort of problem with the floodgates, where the fences meet the river. Every flood tends to wash out fences.
Alternatively, a gate might have been left open.
I went over to have a look and discovered the gate was closed, but that these seventeen young steers weren’t easy to encourage to go out when I opened it. First they just came up to me out of curiosity and stood there staring. When I managed to startle them into movement, they galloped right past me and down among the river tea-trees. I cunningly used my tracking skills to follow where they went.
Apparently they disappeared into a hole in the ground. It was hard to believe the entire herd had vanished through this narrow space. I decided they must have continued out through a gap in the nearby floodgate, mostly because the only way to check would have been sliding down that trail in the mud.
That was just wishful thinking however. On my way back home, I could see the herd hiding among the tea-trees still, like a black blob in the shadows.
I had no idea cattle could be so shrewd.
When Frank went to look for them, they weren’t anywhere to be seen.
He can’t have checked the fence any better than I did. Eventually I figured out where the gap in the fence was, and it was a huge one.
Although I’d had Andrew Kilby work on the flattened floodgate in 2013, the corner strainer post near the river hadn’t been replaced. It was a conveniently placed dead river gum that finally decided to collapse in 2014.
It was so huge that when it fell it pulled up a whole line of star pickets and left them dangling a metre or so above the ground. The cattle happily ducked underneath.
The fallen trunk was beautiful timber that made me wonder just how old that tree was. I’d love to find out how to count rings on a tree. It would obviously need a microscope, though, because the rings are very tiny.
Meanwhile, the steers have been trying to figure out a way through the wonky fence near the bridge, so that they can escape onto the road.