Old Fences Like New

The thing about an old farm is that it tends to have old fences – beautiful in style but ineffective for keeping animals either in or out. If you have sheep, which are like sharks when they want to get somewhere, old fences are just a distraction until they (the sheep) have broken through the bottom or the side or any part that succumbs to 150 pounds of wool and bones pressing and pressing and pressing, then CRACK! there’s a new way in or out.

I have spent the past two summers patching holes where I saw them and cared; leaving others to bother me only when I was trying to corner a lamb and it wiggled out through the broken rails. Everything came to a head when we started losing lambs to the cougar, and it was partly my fault. If I couldn’t contain the sheep at night with some semblance of safety, then the cougar bait was running wild. That the cougar could actually jump the fence with a lamb in its jaws didn’t really matter as much as doing something to make the feat harder, while protecting my charges.

Last winter we had a tremendous wind storm, actually more like a microburst up the Honey Grove valley. This had the affect of toppling lots of trees and actually breaking many of our cedars in half, strewing trunks and limbs across our forest trails. Greg spent part of the Christmas holiday back in our woods sawing up the top half of one of these trees by himself and somehow (I have never quite figured how) moving it off to the side so we could pass.

Cedar is not a good firewood because it burns too fast and too hot. This past summer I had the brilliant idea of helping our resident logger neighbor, Dave, bond with his 14-year-old son, John. He could teach John to split our cedar trunks for rails, and I would have fencing materials to complete my pasture projects. It looked like a “win-win” for all. Dave took one look at the logs and pronounced them too full of knots for any useful wood to come out, also too “buggy” with rot. So much for bonding!

Well, Manuel had another take on our cedar. He had grown up on his grand-parent’s ranch, a two-day walk to town for supplies, and learned to use and re-use anything he could scavenge in the less fertile land of Michohacan, Mexico. In Manuel’s language, anything was possible given enough determination. He hiked up the trail and soon hauled back a Gator full of rails and posts. He broke an axe head and then the handle of our second axe in the process. I wonder what it takes to break an axe head? Determination, strength, and gnarly wood?!

Manuel and another neighbor, Allen, have been working on fencing on and off for the past two months now. They have added woven wire to the re-worked split rails to keep the sheep from slipping through the fencing, to discourage the cougar from finding the kill too easy, to make the fencing look like it did when the old-timers first put it up. We have brainstormed new ways to hang our gates and even thrown out our contemporary ideas, replaced by old solutions that work much better. My trips to the feed store for fencing materials have almost ceased as Manuel and Allen eschew nails for wire and split more cedar posts instead of using chemically treated and manufactured posts. Heck, the 80-year old cedar posts they are pulling out of the ground to strengthen and re-hew are usually going right back in because they seem more impermeable to the rain and the rot of the loamy earth than anything produced today.

They say good fences make good neighbors. I don’t know about my neighbors, but I say good fences make for easier livestock management, less shepherd guilt over cougar losses, and wonderful presentation for an old farm. I have come to realize that new is not necessarily better, and, while there is no replacement for the old growth trees that once grew along the Honey Grove valley, there is also no replacement for the cedar posts (or our beautiful barn) made from these same trees so many years ago.

Leaping Lamb Farm (barn, hay, Lammie, sunlight) Oct 2007 018

Top: Our barn, built in 1930 after the first one burned down. Bottom: Manuel(left) with son Manuelito and our neighbor Allen standing in front of newly split and installed cedar posts.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2007 Scottie Jones

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