When is a fence not a fence?

I have been reading The Life and Times of Sir James Wilson of Bulls, by L. J. Wild recently. James Wilson, an immigrant from Scotland, was a pioneering sheep farmer in the Rangitikei in the late 1800s.

Reading his diary entries from the days when he was in the early stages of developing of Ngaio Farm, just east of Bulls, it is clear that fencing was a major consideration when establishing a farm – and the types of fences common at that time would not necessarily be familiar to us today.

Primarily due to the cost of timber in the district, Wilson’s favoured fencing method was the “ditch-and-bank”. 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 excavated soil.  Hedges were often planted to hold the bank together and to add height to the fence. Gorse was a favoured plant for this purpose as it was fast growing, but broom and various thorny species were also used. (As explored in Weeds – the great European invasion, gorse and other species used as hedges soon became too successful and became invasive weeds, which required great effort on the part of the farmer to eradicate.)

This fencing method was commonly used in parts of the British Isles, and used in the open prairies in the United States. It was generally employed by farmers and run-holders ion the east coast of the South Island, where there was little forest remaining and timber was expensive.

Improvements in fencing wire and its subsequent mass-production made it more cost-effective and led to the rapid uptake of post and wire fencing from the 1860s onwards, particularly in the South Island where timber was scarce. Its adoption was a little slower in the North Island, where the availability of timber made post and rail fencing an affordable alternative. The Rangitikei area where Wilson established himself was unusual in that the forest had been destroyed by fire in pre-European times and therefore presented similar conditions to Canterbury or Otago in respect to timber scarcity.

Postscript: I have also been puzzled by another fencing-related mystery. “Stab fencing” has cropped up in both Wilson’s diaries and other documents. Try as I might, I was not able to find out the meaning of this anywhere. But at last, this mystery is solved!

Dr Robert Peden, South Island-based environmental historian and author of “Making Sheep Country” [see also A burning question: what is pastoralism?] has provided this informative explanation: “A stab fence consisted of a line of posts driven into the ground, or dug in if the going was hard, about 4 to 6 inches apart and tied together with wire. This made for a strong timber wall. Totara was the favoured timber for stab fences. Imagine the axe and mall and wedge work required to split enough posts to make such a fence! … I don’t recall seeing the term used in the South Island, but I have seen it referred to in the North island and Australia. It comes from the Scots vernacular: palin being a fence and palin stab a fence post.”

Photo top: Four men constructing a wire fence at an unidentified location, possibly in the 1940s. Photographer unidentified. Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. ID. PAColl-7985-56. Middle and bottom: two fencing methods commonly used on rural properties today: post-and-wire and post-and-rail. Photos: C. Knight

Sources/further reading: The Life and Times of Sir James Wilson of Bulls (1953), by L. J. Wild; Te Ara – Farm fencing.

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