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Icelandic Sheep on a Vermont Farm: Fencing our flock of sheep

On our Vermont Farm we started out with no fences. When we put our first little garden in it became patently obvious that fences were designed not only to keep livestock in... but undesirable elements (like deer) out. Long before we added Icelandic Sheep, or started raising chickens, we'd become, if not skilled, at least resigned, to tacking odd bits of plastic fence and chicken wire to cedar posts in an attempt to defend the garden.

Before we speak of sheep I want to say something about penning chickens. In our Guide to Keeping Chickens we mention we free range ours. We did, but that was Before Fox. Now the birds spend most of their time behind chicken wire. Chickens, however, can fly. Over a 4' fence. Over a 5' fence. And much to our chagrin, over a 6' fence. Chickens need lids on their pens, or you need to clip their wings. When you start looking at electric fences, you'll see electric mesh for containing chickens. Unless you're going to clip wings... don't you believe it. It may keep a predator out... but it probably won't keep your chickens in.

When we added Icelandic Sheep to our Vermont farm the immediate issue was not housing them, or even feeding them, but containing them. Keeping them in, and domestic dogs, coyotes, foxes, and yes... even curious tourists... out. Icelandic sheep have, or usually have, horns. This is an important point, because it means if you choose to fence with electric mesh fencing you need to carefully train your lambs to be afraid of the stuff and not go near it. Many a shepherd has found a sheep in distress because they didn't stay away from the fence, and caught a horn in the mesh. So if you use electric mesh, either permanent or portable you must train your sheep to respect it.

That said, electric fence is wildly versatile. It is easy to put up, easy to take down, comes in a stand-alone portable fence, on rolls, in tape, the stuff is amazing. They've made it to look like boards for horse fencing, or to fold up like a fish net so you can move a small flock of sheep around your yard. Instead of spending days pounding in heavy steel posts or drilling holes for cedar posts, electric fencing comes with fiberglass posts you simply step on to pop into place. Really, it can't get much easier, can it? And it gets better: electric fences are pretty cheap too!

There has to be a down side, and of course, there is. Electric fences only work when the electricity is working, when they're well grounded, and when they're kept free of weeds and debris. As you can imagine, they don't work all that well when they're buried under a 4' snow load either.

So we chose to pen our sheep with a combination of electric and traditional (non-electric) woven wire fence. For our initial flock of four sheep we purchased 2 rolls of Electrostop portable mesh fencing, 42 inches high by 164' long. And 1 roll of Quick Ground Electrostop portable mesh fencing, same height and length. The quick ground makes it unnecessary to pound grounding stakes in every time we move the fence. The fencing was a little more than $100/roll. The charger, and we chose one that runs off a car battery, was around $150. Chargers are expensive.

Now, anyone who knows us will tell you we are BIG fans of ebay. Surely we could have bought the charger for less on ebay? And you're right, we could have. But our flock of purebred Icelandic sheep is worth, off hand, a couple thousand dollars. We're going to risk them against saving a few bucks on ebay? Shearing equipment, I'd buy on ebay. Ear tags, no problem. Water buckets, books, hoof trimmer... ebay all the way. Charger for the electric fence? No. For that we paid full freight from a reputable dealer and counted ourselves among the blessed.

So now we can move our little flock around the place with our portable electric fences. But that isn't going to work in the winter. Obviously, when there is five feet of snow on the ground, we're not going to be moving these sheep anywhere. So they need a permanent enclosure.

Sheep fence comes in two heights. Too Low and About Right. Too low requires the use of a strand of barbed wire or electric run above it. We decided to go with the taller of the two, about $150/133' roll. Plus posts.

Posts come in two types. Expensive but durable metal, and less expensive but less durable cedar. Both are a lot of effort to pound into the ground. Both require you sink braced corner posts where your fence turns. Posts need to be put up at least every 10'. What you save on buying cedar you may end up spending on straightening and reworking the fence as the posts split and give. We went to several farms, saw a wide variety of fences, some straight, some leaning so far over you wondered what was holding them up, and the one universal seemed to be that metal posts held straighter fences. So we went with metal.

Mind you, straight, leaning, or otherwise, the sheep seemed pretty content to stay on their side of the fence. Since sheep are considered a delicacy by our native coyotes, and big fluffy toys by many domestic dogs, a good part of the fencing exercise is to keep undesirables out. What you ultimately decide to do may involve both the portable fences and permanent small pasture arrangement we've settled on, and a perimeter fence enclosing all your property. Creating a "double fence" system as it were. We are prepared, at any moment, to add a hot wire around our fences to discourage a persistent (and unwanted) visitor. But a perimeter fence is outside of our budget. Maybe a llama. Llamas are used to guard sheep, and are quite effective at it. We know someone who purchased a llama and found it kicking a coyote to death one morning.

But usually the problem is not coming out of the wild, but from someone out with his canine companion. In the chicken guide we address the legal issues of attacking domestic dogs. In our town there are leash laws. Dogs are not allowed to be off leash. Which means, of course, they frequently are. We have the legal right to collect damages if someone's dog attacks our sheep. We have the legal right to shoot the dog if it is harassing our stock. Unless you absolutely have to, I don't advise shooting someone's beloved pet right in front of them. They're likely to react very badly.

We bought our fencing from Wellscroft Fence Systems of Harrisville, NH, the Northeaster Rep of Premier 1 Fence Systems. Not only does their site provide information about their fencing, it has a bulletin board system for exchanging information. Useful information, too. We learned where to have our raw wool processed into blankets from this BBS.

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Farm History Essays from the Hill: a year of stories from the farm The Guide to Raising Your Own Chickens The Farm Store Stowe, VT

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