But what did they do for temporary fencing before electric tape, UV stabilised plastics, and the car battery? They made wattle hurdles -
courtesy of www.thebridgemill.org.uk
That's just what I did on Thursday, with friends from the village and our tutor Pete.
Class in session
Pete and his family have been living in the Dorset woods for over 15 years producing hurdles and furniture. He worked as an engineer for many years before turning his skills towards more traditional crafts. Pete says it's given him a bad back but peace of mind. That's probably not a bad trade-off.
I won't try and reproduce the course in a blog post but, if you are interested in having a go, full instructions for making your own hurdle can be found here on the BTCV website. Instead, I'll tell you what I learned from my day with Pete.
I learned that hurdles are the ultimate in efficient and renewable engineering. Hurdles are usually made from hazel (sometimes willow or chestnut). Hazel grows in straight stems and can be harvested without killing the parent plant. This method is called coppicing. Making a hurdle uses all the sizes and parts of a stem. Pete says if a hurdle is made properly, what's leftover should only be usable as kindling in your wood stove.
The short and thick stems make the uprights, which stand in a frame -
The thinnest. longest stems are what you begin weaving between your uprights. By using the most flexible stems, you can get a tight weave. By using the longest stems, you can twist the weave back on itself for strength.
Once the thin stems are in place, you fill in with split stems. Select one of medium thickness, find the centre with your billhook, knock the blade in to begin separating the stem in two halves and work slowly twisting your blade side to side, to control the split -
Swearing isn't mandatory but it's probably unavoidable. Splitting a long length of hazel without getting hung up on a knot or running out the side takes practice. Years of it apparently. For every one stem I split correctly, I ruined three others. Well, relegated them to other uses - nothing is wasted in this process. Pete also noticed the name of the maker stamped into my bill hook: Stanforth's SeverQuick. I hoped their claim referred to the hazel only and not my fingers.
In the end I managed to complete a small hurdle, with a lot of help from Pete -
I don't know why I look so proud, it took me half a day to make that. With help.
But I had need of this particular hurdle; not to keep sheep in but to keep chickens out of my flower beds.
I think it looks pretty good. If my wrists and elbow joints ever recover, I might attempt a second one for the other bed.
These days hurdles are mainly purchased or commissioned as decorative garden fencing for fancier homes. Originally, they were an important tool for shepherds.
Shepherds moved their flocks constantly, to maximise grazing. As sheep moved and grazed, they gave birth to their lambs. Hurdle pens were erected to protect a ewe and her lambs, and to keep them together. The uprights have points on the bottom, to make them easier to push into the ground and sturdy once they're in.
Some hurdles were made with small rectangular gaps at the top. When the lambs got bigger and needed to eat grass, the hurdles were turned over. The gaps let the lambs out to graze and play, but kept the ewes contained. The ewe called her lamb to keep it close, and was on hand for food and warmth.
When lambs were weaned and big enough to travel, the shepherds just picked up the hurdles and carried them on. Nearly all hurdles have a small hole or slot woven into them. The shepherd could poke a pole through a stack of hurdles and carry them on his shoulder. Hurdles were just right for the job.
Now there are metal hurdles, and I use some of those to corral the sheep when I want to work on them or give them meds. They're fine too but they lack the romance and artistry of a finely woven hurdle, a design which may have been used since humans became sedentary and took up agriculture.
Pete says he can make a 4ft x 6ft hurdle in about 2 hours, with a good wind behind him, so even with experience it is still a labor-intensive job. It only takes me half an hour to drive to the local feed store and pick up another roll of electric fence tape. Romance will always give way to my laziness.
Tomorrow I'll be managing the other end of the fencing spectrum, watching the tractor and its hydraulic rammer pound posts into ground and define the boundary of our little field. But I can imagine the old shepherds who once grazed their sheep on Milkweed, and it's nice to think that it only takes a few interwoven split stems to keep a ewe and lamb safe.