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Barbed wire blight

Fences are essential for livestock management, but there is too much barbed wire blighting our countryside and injuring man and beast, says Alasdair Mitchell

Barbed wire fence

Barbed wire fence blights the countryside

I hate fences. They are unsightly, inconvenient and potentially dangerous to man and beast alike. Unfortunately, they are also necessary for the management of livestock. In order to keep sheep out of the new scrub woodland I am planting, I am putting up lots of new fences on my farm. Fortunately, the authorities are letting me put plain wire on top, rather than barbed wire.

Hellish stuff

Barbed wire is hellish stuff. How many gundogs have been badly injured while jumping it? It is specifically designed to cause pain to living creatures. The idea is that as a cow, or whatever, pushes against it, the sharp barb presses into the animal’s flesh, causing it to recoil. Unlike an electric fence, barbed wire can leave permanent damage and scarring. Yet, if a bull wants to get through a fence to reach some cows, it’ll do it — barbed wire or not. For sheep, I don’t see any valid use for barbed wire. (Read working dog hazards to watch out for in the field.)

Barbed wire fence blights the countryside

How many gundogs have been badly injured jumping barbed wire?

A necessary evil?

A particularly dangerous situation arises when a deer or a dog jumps a fence and its hind foot pushes down on a slack top wire, tucking it under the strand below. The resulting wire pocket may leave the poor animal hanging by its back leg. I have had to shoot a fallow buck we found caught like this in a park; in its struggles, it had twisted the lower part of the trapped limb almost completely off. Another time, I was quick enough to free the deer, but this same park had a number of deer that were missing the bottom part of a hind leg. I think I know how that happened.

It is true that even a plain-top wire can trap the foot of an animal. But without the barbs, the animal is much more likely to be able to escape unscathed. A neighbour of mine cut the top barbed-wire strand off all the fencing on his farm after his sheep dog ripped her belly open on the hideous stuff. And here’s the thing: he’s never seen a need to put any barbed wire back, even though he keeps cattle as well as sheep. Is all this barbed wire strung across our countryside strictly necessary?

I recall one syndicate shoot where we had to negotiate some really nasty fences. They were tall, with double top strands and rickety posts. It was like a military assault course and an accident waiting to happen for some of the older Guns and their canine companions. I began to dread invitations to the place. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to ask a member why the shoot didn’t simply install some stiles or wicket gates as appropriate. It emerged that the sticking point was the farmer. He had been subjected to all sort of trespass in the past and simply vetoed any access improvements for fear they would be exploited by ‘wrong-uns’. (Read the shooting safety rules. )

Some years ago, a friend of mine was walking his dog next to a nature reserve owned by a conservation charity, when he found a dead buzzard at the foot of a newly installed deer fence. One of the raptor’s wings was almost sheared off. He took photos and contacted the relevant authorities, who eagerly asked for more information. After it became clear that no gamekeeper or shoot was implicated, they lost interest.