The earliest fencing systems used by European settlers in New Zealand were designed not to manage stock, but to protect crops, gardens and orchards from them. A variety of methods were used, depending on the materials available.
Rising from the ashes
Tōtara was a favourite fencing timber in the North Island, and easy to find – after the native bush was felled and burned, many charred tōtara logs littered the countryside. Before re-burning the land, settlers would split the logs into posts and bury them where they could be used later. After the second fire, they dug up the posts and used them for fencing.
Where timber was readily accessible, post-and-rail fencing was the preferred method as it was cheap and relatively easy to erect. This type of fencing had been developed in forested areas of the eastern United States and was also used in the timbered parts of Australia. Some substantial lengths of post-and-rail fences were erected in New Zealand in the early period of settlement. The first fencing on Orari Gorge Station in South Canterbury was put up in the late 1850s, with 8 kilometres of posts and four rails.
Pastoralists and farmers in the open grasslands of the South Island did not have ready access to native bush, and timber was expensive, so they preferred ditch-and-bank fences. This method was well established in parts of the British Isles, and used in the open prairies in the USA.
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 spoil. So a newly built fence was a six-foot (1.8- metre) barrier. In time, the bank tended to settle, so hedges were planted to hold the bank together and to add height to the fence. Gorse was a favourite plant for this purpose as it was fast growing, but broom and various thorny species were also used.
There were variations on ditch and bank fences. Sometimes a ditch was dug on each side of the bank. An alternative to planting a hedge was to erect a post-and-two-rail fence on top of the bank. Where the soil type was suitable, settlers built sod walls and planted gorse to strengthen them.
In the Whangārei district, 156 kilometres of stone walls were built between the 1850s and the 1930s – the greatest extent of this type of fencing in New Zealand. When the settlers arrived, volcanic rock littered the ground. They cleared the land for cultivation, saving the rock to build walls. These were made without mortar, using the double-dyke method: two outer rows of stone, with the space between packed with smaller stones.
Stone walls were traditionally used as fencing in parts of Britain. In New Zealand they were built where there was a ready supply of suitable stone. In volcanic areas, such as parts of North Auckland, the Tāmaki isthmus and Otago Peninsula, settlers cleared the stone off the ground and put up extensive stone walls. Like ditch and bank fences, they were laborious to erect and therefore expensive. But once built they were durable, and they also provided shelter for stock.
Settlers planted hedges, known to farmers as live fences, as these were cheap to establish – the material cost was low and planting required little labour. Once established they provided shelter from the wind on the open grasslands.
A disadvantage was the time needed for a hedge to grow dense enough to form an adequate barrier for stock. They also needed regular trimming to maintain a tight form, otherwise gaps developed where sheep could push through. Perhaps the most serious problem with live fences was that the best plants – gorse, broom and various thorns – proved to be highly invasive, and have taken over many thousands of acres in both the North and South islands.
When the grass looks greener
In the 1860s writer and station owner Samuel Butler reported on how to make sheep stay on their own turf: ‘Directly [they] reach the boundary show yourself with your dog in your most terrific aspect. Startle them, frighten them; do so again and again, at the same spot, from the very first day. Let them always have peace on their own run, and none anywhere off it. In a month or two you will find the sheep begin to understand your meaning.’ 1
Early types of fence were suitable only for enclosing fairly small areas – the extensive open country where sheep grazed was left unfenced. On the big sheep stations of the South Island, pastoralists employed boundary keepers to hold the sheep on their runs. These men lived in remote huts and often had no contact with other people for months at a time. Their daily round was spent on the hill with the sheep. In the high country, merino sheep camp in mobs high on ridges and spurs at night, and during the day they move down to the lower slopes and flats as they graze. In the evening they make their way back up to their camps. The boundary keeper needed to be away early in the morning to keep watch on his charges, and stayed on the hill until he saw the sheep back in their camps at night.