Fences and boundaries

They say that good fences make good neighbours. When I bought Century Wood, my thought was not so much about neighbours but wanderers: wandering people and wandering deer. I put up stretches of fencing with this in mind, but over time they have come to define boundaries on the ground.

In practice, I’ve had very few run-ins with trespassers, although the first was quite a surprise. On my second visit after buying the wood in 2008, I heard shotguns and then three tweed-clad trespassers, two with guns, confidently wandered into what is now the central Glade where I was felling a tree. I suspect some local shooters had got used to the wood being unoccupied for many years. Signs and fences were an important part of stopping this, along with natural boundaries.

One of the strengths of the wood is that ditches and streams form much of the boundary. This first picture shows one of these streams in the bottom of a deep ditch. The farmer’s wire fence gives you some idea of the scale, and even without it, the ditch is a clear and, for many casual trespassers, off-putting barrier. I’ve never felt the need to put up a fence on my side, and not only because the local land drainage board comes along once a year with a JCB, dredges out the bottom of the ditch and dumps it on my side. The second picture shows some inquisitive wanderers, who would love to come into the wood to see what we are doing – if only the barriers were not in the way.

Another stretch of boundary was the complete opposite. When I bought the wood there was no visible boundary on the ground with a neighbouring wood which had not been sold off yet. My boundary was marked by red paint on some of the trees, referred to in the particulars when the wood was advertised for sale. There was also a thick line on the map submitted to the Land Registry, accompanied by the Registry’s warnings that its “general boundaries” are not exact “legal boundaries”, which depend on the situation on the ground.

I decided very early on to do any fencing of boundaries with 1.8m high black plastic deer mesh. For deer themselves and for any more casual trespassers. This largely invisible boundary was the first length I did with the deer mesh. In the first picture below you can see how I just strung it between the plantation poplars, with one of the red paint marks visible in the foreground.

Where the gaps between the marked poplars were too large for the fencing, I supported it with light stakes hammered into the ground. All in all a very quick and a bit temporary, but effective though. You can see one of those stakes in the second picture, with the fencing mesh covered in thick hoar frost on a cold winter’s morning. This fence line was in place when the neighbouring wood was eventually sold.

Over time I went back with thicker hazel poles cut from the woodland itself, both to improve the tension and to reinstate sections brought down by falling branches from the poplar trees. This should gradually be less of a problem as the poplars are removed or indeed die, with the bacterial canker which causes them to shed branches. But I’m not aiming for long lived posts until then, and hazel is just the right size and grows all over the wood. These three pictures show hazel posts, both freshly put in place, and after a sustained attack at the top.

Over the last couple of years I’ve neglected this whole stretch of fencing, and I should do some maintenance of it this year. If I do, I’ll make a video of the procedure: from cutting the hazel poles to digging the post holes, tamping it down, and the finished product.

I’m not the only one with fences to maintain, and in this last picture the neighbouring farmer was putting up another wire fence, set back from a previous decaying fence line, and my own deer mesh, again strung between the last of the poplars at the woodland edge. At least once that middle decaying fence failed to keep sheep out of Century Wood, and I became an amateur shepherd for a time, shooing a dozen of the animals all the way from the centre of the wood, up a ride, and back over the downed fence, which I then wedged back up.

The saying “good fences make good neighbours” has existed in various forms and various languages for centuries. But it was popularised in English by Robert Frost’s 1914 poem “Mending Wall”, which uses it twice, including as its final words. On the face of it the poem is a simple, rather playful account of Frost’s annual ritual of walking the length of a shared wall with his neighbour, replacing stones displaced by winter frost and hunters. Frost questions the need for a wall at all:

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.

Frost continues his increasingly dismissive tone, saying his neighbour “moves in darkness” with his attachment to traditional wisdom such as the saying itself. But is Frost setting up his own character to be knocked down? There are two good reasons for the wall, even in the absence of livestock or Tolkien-ish trees wandering across the boundary. First, that the annual ritual of mending the wall together also maintains Frost’s relationship with his neighbour. This interpretation is often discussed in analyses of the poem.

But I would also argue that the wall is a self-imposed limitation. It is an implicit promise not to “push the boundaries” by encroaching on the other’s land. It not only keeps the neighbour out, but the land owner in. Look again at that last photo of my farming neighbour’s new fence. He is implicitly promising not to chip away at trees on the edge of the wood, and my deer mesh strung between the trunks of the last line of poplars promises that I will not plant saplings on the edge of his field to expand the woodland’s realm. Whenever those situations apply, I would say that good fences do indeed make good neighbours. I certainly do have some trust in my farming neighbour as a result of his fence, even though I have never met him.

And they discourage wanderers of course.

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