The winter months were traditionally the time when farmers mended their fences, laid hedgerows, cleaned field drains and, in general, made good what needed repair.
Nowadays, we mostly trim hedgerows mechanically and the electric fence has enabled us to manage grazing more productively, but we still need to maintain stock-proof boundaries and none are more important than those around our woodland.
When forestry increased in popularity in the early 1990s, it became almost a local sport in some rural areas to put cattle and sheep into new plantations the minute contractors left. It took a while for the woodland owners and their neighbours to realise the stupidity of this and the huge cost of stock damage to the future crop of timber.
Not only do livestock ruin young trees but they also break down the open drains created after mounding and in general cause damage way beyond the small perceived benefit of some stolen grazing.
I have seen many cases of trees destroyed by cattle and sheep with bark stripped and saplings grazed and broken.
With this in mind, I have spent the past five years repairing and replacing much of my own forestry fencing that was erected in 1995 and thereby ensuring that the woods remain protected.
When I first planted, my Forest Service inspector demanded that I run a rabbit-proof fence around every section of my new woodland, despite the fact that there are no rabbits on my farm and have not been any since the introduction of myxomatosis in the 1950s.
This fence was comprised of chicken wire with barbed wire as a top strand and some electric fencing in places for additional protection. It looked stock proof initially but it wasn't long until the sheep created holes and gaps and repairing them became a daily task. I would, of course, have preferred to fence the lot with high tensile sheep wire in the first place but couldn't afford to do that and also include rabbit-proof wire.
I had made the additional mistake of not insisting on pressure-creosoted posts and now, with so many having rotted and so much damaged wire, I reckon it is better to replace what is already there with a proper cattle and sheep-proof fence.
Wherever the chicken wire is in relatively good condition and where the posts are still mostly sound, I have found that running two strands of high tensile, 3in barbed wire along the face of the existing fence, the first about 1ft over ground and the second a foot above that again, is an inexpensive means of protecting the wire from sheep drilling further holes in it.
I have also erected gates in each section to allow for easy access for thinning and tending and the extraction of timber. Again, with hindsight, it would have been better to do this in the first place but I didn't realise then the real need for gates -- and with the grant not covering the additional cost, my contractors didn't suggest I put them in.
The Forest Service regulations states the following: there is no requirement or additional funding to provide gates to all plots. All existing fences and boundaries must be to a standard which can exclude domestic stock and protect the growing crop. If plots require rabbit fencing, the entire area to be protected must be enclosed with a rabbit-proof fence.
The grant doesn't fully cover the cost of a good fence but that shouldn't prevent anyone doing a proper job. If you don't do it right at the start, you will end up, like me, paying a heavy price for short-sighted economy.
Always insist on the best materials and there is a small extra grant payment available for using IS436 Certified fencing, which ensures that the posts have been properly dried before treating with a preservative.
I have had pressure-creosoted posts in the ground for 40 years and they are still perfectly sound so it pays to only use these or the tanalised posts that comply with the new standard.
Under the terms of the afforestation scheme, forest owners who propose to carry out the work themselves are eligible to apply for assistance towards their own labour.
Many farmers avail of this opportunity to save on the cost but I have always believed that good professional fencing contractors, who have the equipment and the expertise, can often provide better value than doing the job yourself.