Grit Blogs > Transitional Traditions

The Fence vs. The Sheep

Sheep escape artists

Good day, friends.

We begin yet another week together, and if you are looking ahead at the coming days, wondering if that elusive weekend will ever come, please, allow me to regale you with a tale of faith and frustration.

We just acquired our first herd of sheep this summer and the learning curve has been tremendous! Sheep are so different than cattle, which is what we are familiar with. The “woolies” as we have begun affectionately calling them decided that they were comfortable enough with their station to begin pushing their boundaries and experimenting with my patience.

It started about two weeks ago. A dear friend, Josh Marshall, came to stay for the weekend and helped me build a temporary perimeter fence. We used a type of wire that is woven with flexible plastic fibers and is very stretchy. Now, in order for you to understand what happened, I must give you a crash course on electric fencing.

Many of you have expressed concerns that electric fencing is a cruel method of animal detainment. Although that was true in the past where fences used much higher voltages, today’s fencing is a humane and highly effective fence alternative.

Modern electric fencing is a psychological barrier as opposed to a physical barrier. All that simply means is that an animal learns to respect the fence and that respect keeps them in. A physical barrier is one that relies on strength to maintain captivity.

Now, instead of using a constant charge that runs through the wire which was commonplace years ago, the electricity starts at an energizer (small box that converts household electricity into pulses) that sends small bursts of low voltage across the line at variable speeds (ours sends a burst about every 1.5 seconds, pretty common). When the animal comes in contact with the line they receive a jolt. After a few rather unpleasant interactions the animal learns that the highly visible line is best to avoid.

This type of fencing is very effective because it affords the user a high amount of versatility. We for instance use a flexible electric fence system. We utilize strong corner posts to hold up high tensile metal wire (thin gauge wire that acts as a conduit for the electricity). High tensile means that it can withstand large amounts of tension. We tighten the wire and it responds like a 500 foot guitar string. This metal is also able to stretch several feet before breaking and still return to its original form. We use this wire with a very flexible type of support post between the corner post. We do this so that when an animal decides to test the fence or may be pushed up against it during a struggle the fence will bend back with the animal, provide them with support so they do not tangle in wire and give them with a brief stimulating reminder of the animal/fence relationship.

The animal is better off because they do not test the fence and therefore do not run the risk of endangering themselves in the event of an emergency and we get the peace of mind that the animals are well protected and the added bonus of a very cost effective fencing solution.

Now, that being said ... electric fences are not without their fair share of ... well ... idiosyncrasies. Even the best designed fence, with a top of the line energizer and miles and miles and miles of fence can be rendered utterly useless by one single centimeter of interference.

So, on to my week.

FenceMonths ago, when we first got the sheep (and after a few days of some random [yet daring] sheep escapes), the fence had done its job and my mornings greeted me with the gentle docility that characterized these sweet and truly loving animals. That all changed early last week.

On Monday, Becky and I were finished with the day’s chores and decided to run to town to take care of some overdue errands. On the way home I received a call from Dave (my father-in-law) that the sheep were out. We got home and I saw the telltale signs everywhere in our yard, small pebble sized black sheep peas scattered about the premises. I assumed that they simply had tested the fence that Josh and I had put up so we hustled them back in called it a day.

The next morning I was greeted by a slow moving sheep train, plodding uninhibited towards our driveway and ultimately to the open road. The thought of my poor sheepies trying to hitch rides with passing motorists filled me with dread, so I promptly returned them to their pasture. I assumed now that the issue was a shoddy gate that I had installed. It was a quick assembly and I did not anticipate having to fix it for a few days. So I went over and upgraded it to the proper level of security.

When I returned from our annual Vacation Bible School at our church that was going on this week, Dave informed me that our little escape artists were on the loose again. We got them in and secured and went to bed. The next day we got up extra early to try and rectify the situation. We worked all day trying to fix the problem with no success. I had to call and tell my church that I would not make it as I attempted to put a second line of defense in so that the sheep would at least not escape that night. I ran a wall of electric net fencing that was about 160 ft long and 4 ft tall along the northern perimeter where I thought they were escaping. Amazingly, I did not awake to a jailbreak.

The next day (Thursday) Dave and I tore out all the work that Josh and I had done the previous Saturday and went about building a completely new fence out of the high tensile wire. We worked all the way until 5:30 when I had to leave for church. I was not there for 45 minutes before I received a call from Dave saying, you guessed it, they were out again. He called a neighbor to help pacify our woolly friends.

On Friday, instead of finding the problem we had to build another set of fencing because the sheep had grazed most of what was available to them. When they had gotten out they had overgrazed much of the pasture that was intended for them over the next couple of days and we were left with very little feed for them. So we had to build another wire fence just to get them food. Luckily, there was no liberation that night.

On Saturday, as we stood with our hair pulled from our head in our hands, we decided that the problem was not the physical aspect of the fence but the psychological. With every addition that we had made we checked the output of the fence constantly during the week. We unhooked entire sections of paddocks with little success. At first we were only getting about 5 percent of the electricity flowing that we needed and by Saturday, with all of the testing and building, we were barely at 20 percent (a mere tickle of a zap to a sheep, well worth the pain to get through the fence to greener pastures).

Saturday morning Dave confessed to me that he had been trying too hard to fix the problem, and he prayed that God would show us the way. We began by walking the fence row with machetes, loppers and fence testers. If there was an obstruction touching the fence, we removed it. Any time a something touches an electric fence, the fence sends electricity into it. If the item touching it is a sufficient conductor, the entire jolt passes into the object, never to continue its intended course through the fence. The vast majority of the time, when this happens the electricity has to arc (a luminous bridge formed in a gap between two electrodes, much like a small bolt of lightning), and when this happens there is a very audible *snap!* This is called a short.

We found that we had about 80 percent power at the beginning of the line so we followed it down. It seemed to end suddenly near the sheep fencing so we thought that the problem was with the sheep fencing exhausting the power. I removed days of fence work in a couple of hours just to see if the extra fencing was a problem. It wasn’t. We gained about 2 percent output from that. Dave continued down the fence row, trimming trees and cutting grass by hand, and at about 4:00 we were no better off then when we had started.

Unfortunately, at this point the sheep were feverish for new pasture so we had to move them, with or without the security of the fence. There was a small section of fence on the east side that needed a line run across it because there was about an 18 inch gap at ground level and if we put the sheep into the new paddock, they would easily get out through the gap. I only needed to add about a 50 ft section but the entire fence was about 300 ft long. I knew if I didn’t run the wire all the way, I would just have to do it soon anyway. But I thought to myself, I’m tired, I’m mentally exhausted, I just wanted to be done. Then, a little voice in my head said, just do the job the best you can and fix the fence.

I began running the line down the fence. I had to bend all the way over or get on my knees and run the line from fence post to fence post. Five posts were run, then 10, then 20. Then, as I bent down to put the line on a post I heard it. It was faint, it sounded like someone playing a cymbal with a toothpick but it was there, a rhythmic and constant ping about ever 1.5 seconds. I looked up to see the metal fence that had been installed years ago had been broken from the insulating holder and was now completely pressed against the metal pole. The metal wire carrying a charge was on the metal post that was stuck in the ground.

My heart literally skipped a beat. I fumbled for my phone to call Dave, “Dave! It’s Andy, I hope I’m not counting my chickens early but I think I found it!”

“Found what?” he replied.

“The short!” I screamed. He turned off the energizer, and I fixed the wire so that it was not touching the post. He turned the energizer back on, and I waited, my heart pounding so hard in my head that I thought I might collapse. He grabbed the fence tester and I heard the whoop and holler from all the way down the fence row.

We were at 95 percent!!

I couldn’t believe it, I was dizzy from the rush of adrenaline. Because of all of the other work we had done trying to fix the problem we had actually made the fence stronger then before we had the problem. The amazing thing was that I never would have heard the quiet short unless I was inches from it and I wouldn’t have ever been on that section, bent in half fixing the fence, if that little voice hadn’t said, make the right choice and do the job to the fullest.

We spent the next couple of hours finishing a few things up, and we let the sheep go. They had a brief moment of frustration as they reacquainted themselves with the fence but that soon passed. The elation we felt was euphoric. To think that such a simple thing as fixing a fence could provide such a deep and quenching satisfaction.

Our family motto is “The journey is the reward.” I was rewarded deeply that day and I can tell you with the surest honesty, that night was one of the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had.

Blessings to you all, and please, listen to the little voice.

Fence vs Sheep

Rebekah Sell lives on a small plot of land with her husband, Andy, on which they are hoping to build a sustainable homestead. With a small business and four kids, life is always interesting as Becky and Andy live fully the idea that the journey is the reward. Find her on .