Ranging Poultry with Electric Net Fencing
We keepers of the home flock are often advised not to keep our birds all cooped up: “Get ’em out into the fresh air and sunshine!” But we know the local tribe of predators like our poultry as much as we do, so we take care to install a good stout fence around our chicken run to keep out the bad guys. Now it’s safe to let the flock out into their little corner of the great outdoors. But wait! Within a week every last blade of grass is gone from the run, it looks like the surface of the moon dotted with chicken poops! Droppings are accumulating, flies are having a field day, pathogens are a potential hazard, and the run is a source of run-off pollution with every heavy rain. A static chicken run is not such a good idea!
Much better to release those birds, let ’em free-range like nature intended! Now they’re healthier and more content; and the live foods they forage, green growing plants, wild seeds, earthworms, slugs, and insects, are of a quality we cannot hope to match with anything from a bag. The living pasture sod “digests” the poops laid down, vastly healthier for the flock than the static run (and a boost in fertility for the pasture). This is the life for “the natural chicken”! Oh but wait, they’re in the garden! And Mr. Pumphrey’s rose bed! And worst of all, Brer Fox and Mr. Raccoon are having a field day (to say nothing of the neighbors’ dogs)! Free-ranging the flock is a terrible idea!
Is there any way to manage the homestead flock that both gives them access to the many benefits of free-ranging on good pasture, confines them where we want them, and protects them from the bad guys? Fortunately, there is: electric net fencing, or electronet.
I have only used one design of electric net, the poultry net I buy from Premier Fencing Supply, so I will describe that option. The fence is made by welding together the black plastic string verticals with the white (or yellow) plastic horizontals. Note that the verticals are for support only, they are not electrified. The twisted plastic strands of the horizontals are intertwined with six almost hair-fine stainless steel wires, which carry the charge. (The very bottom horizontal is black plastic with no wires, obviously it would make no sense to charge a line in contact with the ground.) At both ends of the net, all the charged wires are twisted together so they share a common charge, thus a break in any given horizontal does not leave that strand dead, and the entire net remains charged. (Note that nets come with a kit to repair breaks in the lines.)
Interwoven with the fence’s mesh are plastic support posts tipped with metal spikes. One pushes the spikes into the soil to stand the fence in place.
Nets are supplied 164 ft long. Thus a single net will enclose a square about 40 ft on a side, or more than 1600 sq ft. “Half nets” 82 ft long are also available. I have never enclosed a flock in a half net, a 20-ft square is a pretty small plot of ground, but it is convenient when laying out an enclosure to have the option of adding a half net to complete the fence (rather than trying to double up a longer net).
Over the many years I’ve been using electronet, there have been several changes to the basic design, all of them for the better. The “stays” or verticals are now closer together (3 inches), as are the lower horizontals (2 inches apart at chicken or predator level), and the interwoven posts (7-½ ft., for a tighter, sag-free fence).
At least with the net fencing I get from Premier, one has the option of either 42 or 47 inches high. I have always used the 42-inch. Obviously chickens can fly over a fence that high, but they usually don’t after getting “zapped” by it a time or two. If I do have a rogue flyer, I simply clip a wing to encourage her to stay where she’s put. (The guineas are the only fowl who need radical treatment to prevent flying. For a persistent flyer, I shear off all flight feathers on both wings, certain to keep them grounded inside the fence.) In some situations, the additional 5 inches of height could be a benefit, but remember that the gathered bundle of netting will be heavier and longer as a result, meaning handling will be more difficult.
One has many options for energizing the fence. Energizers are available in many sizes and voltages for different fencing needs. Some are powered by batteries, from size D to 9 volt to 12 volt. Some are solar-powered. Some plug into household current. I use both the latter two options.
For free-standing use in a site too remote to serve conveniently from household current, the solar-powered energizer is hard to beat. The unit’s controller pulses energy from the solar panel through the fence, while trickle-charging a backup battery. At night, or on heavily clouded days, the controller pulls from the battery to charge the fence. Grounding for the unit can be as simple as a metal stake driven into the soil which also serves as a bracket to hold the charger; though I’ve always preferred a heavier ground rod driven a little deeper into the soil. A good solar charger with a 12-volt battery can energize several rolls of netting. I have two solar units which I use to charge my more remote nets.
If possible to pull power from household current, however, there are advantages in doing so. An AC energizer provides a “hotter” spark in the system, can power more rolls of netting, and can take more weed load without weakening in deterrent effect. I use an AC charger located in the poultry house, which is wired for electricity, to carry power to a number of pasture nets. Unless nets are “anchored” on the poultry house, I use insulated cable to carry the charge, and manual field switches to “kill” the charge in order to enter a net. Note that in a system of separate nets served from the same charger, you can wire the manual field switches parallel (nets farther down the line remain charged when the switch is open) or in series (nets down the line also lose power when the switch is open).
Equally important as the energizer is the quality of electrical ground in the system. The better the ground, the hotter the spark in adverse conditions, e.g., dry soil. For my AC unit, I grounded with three 8-foot steel rods, driven into the soil along the foundation of the poultry house (which stays moist longer than any other location because of run-off from the roof) and wired together with heavy gauge wire. I do not ever have to worry about good ground in that system, however dry the soil becomes in summer.
Setting Up the Net
The first step in installing the net is to lay it out flat along the perimeter of the area to be netted. Start with one of the end posts (the ones with the twisted ends of the horizontal wires attached) and, holding the other posts in a bundle in one hand, play out the netting along the perimeter one panel of mesh at a time. Then start at one end again and stand the post up, push the spike its full length into the soil, go on to the next post, and repeat. (In moist soil, it is easy to push in the spike. In dry, tight, or gravel soil, I use a 12-inch piece of re-bar and a small sledgehammer to make a hole for the spike.)
Once I have the fence standing in place, I use my small power mower with a bagger (set to one of the lowest settings for the blade) to mow all around the perimeter. I then lay the fence down flat again, on the inside of the perimeter and out of the way of the mower, and make an additional couple of passes with the bagging mower. The result is a mowed swath defining the perimeter of the netted area. I re-erect the fence along the center of that swath, then tie off all corners to additional free-standing power posts to secure a tighter, upright fence.
Note that you can use more than one roll of netting to enclose a fenced area. The twisted-together horizontals on both ends of a roll of net end in a special clip that attaches to the companion clip on the next net. The end posts are also equipped with cords for tying them together, leaving no loose gap in the fence.
I like a nice tight fence, to ensure better contact with a potential predator, so I take any “sag” out of my fence by adding a 7/16-inch coated fiberglass rod in the center of each panel; and using a screw-on fence insulator to lift up on the top string, creating additional tension on the fence.
You can set up the fence to conform to the perimeter of any area you need to net. One configuration to avoid, however, is a part of the enclosure that is too narrow. I once set up a fence that was anchored on the poultry house, but led via a narrow corridor to a wider pasture area. Not a good idea! A couple of smart dogs (having apparently gotten wise to the fence) learned to “rush” some geese in the corridor, causing them to panic into flight. With one dog feinting at the fence, and the other on the opposite side, ready to receive, the attack cost me one young goose before I figured out the problem and re-configured the fence (that is, with a bigger interior space into which the geese could retreat).
Note that I never set up any sort of “gate” in my nets. For the 42-inch net, it is easy to swing a leg over the net to straddle it, then follow with the other leg. (Watch that trailing heel. That’s the one that catches the top of the net, after you’ve moved your attention on to the next thing.) If I’m carrying something like a five-gallon waterer, I set it down by the net, straddle, then practice proper knees-bent lifting to transfer it to the other side of the net, set it down, then swing the other leg over. Of course, we want to be certain we’ve killed the power before straddling that fence, especially us guys.
Moving the Net
The great advantage of putting one’s birds on pasture rather than in a static chicken run is that they are always on fresh growing grasses, clovers, and “weeds”. But the longer the flock remains on a given piece of ground, the closer it approaches that “surface of the moon dotted with chicken poops”. To maintain the advantages of pasturing the flock, it is necessary to rotate the flock to new ground before the plot they’re on begins to “wear” from the activity of the birds. (Frequency of rotation depends chiefly on stocking density and the point in the growing season, e.g., lush spring or dry summer.)
It is easy to move electronet and set it up on the next plot in the rotation, unless it gets tangled! A seriously tangled net will make you weep with frustration. Begin by pulling up the support posts and laying the net out flat. Then, starting at one end, pick up the end post and move it in a folding motion to the next post over, pick up that post, fold over to the next post, and so on to the end. Let me emphasize that the panels of mesh between posts must be folded neatly, and that they must remain flat. Do not try to roll the net, and do not continue folding if the mesh becomes “kinked” or off-center in any way. Imagine the net, gathered up for moving, as a book: The flatly folded panels of mesh are the pages, and the bundle of posts, now all in one hand, is the spine. Now you can carry the net (holding the bundle of posts above your head so the trailing mesh doesn’t catch on anything, netting loves to catch on things) to the new location, where you lay it out around the perimeter of the new area and proceed as above (“Setting Up the Net”).
Moving the birds to the new netted area can be a challenge, and how you do so will depend on the specific situation. If I am moving the flock to a new plot not adjacent to the old one, I have learned that chickens don’t “herd” very well to the new enclosure. (Ducks and geese, on the other hand, are usually easy to “herd”.) I work early in the morning, feeding the birds inside their pasture shelter and then shutting its door. Next I pop on the wheels for which all my pasture shelters are designed. Now I can roll the shelter into the new enclosure, carefully, watching that birds don’t get caught under the back rail of the frame, and release the birds.
If the new plot is adjacent to the old, I set up the new net(s), using one side of the previous enclosure as a side in the new enclosure. I then open a gap in the fence and tempt the birds into the new enclosure with their morning feeding.
Note that you can always shut the flock up in the pasture shelter while you set the net(s) of the existing fence around the new plot. However, I have found it a good investment to have extra rolls of netting available. Thus I can set up the new enclosure, while allowing the birds to continue foraging in the old one until I’m ready to move them. With this option, if the birds resist moving, I can pull in the old fence, confining the flock into an increasingly small space, until they are forced to enter the new enclosure.
Maintaining the Charge in the Net
If you maintain a good hot “spark” in the net, it will stop anything on the ground with a nervous system. A friend has seen it turn back a bear on two separate occasions. On my own place, I have seen it stop a large dog powerful enough to break a corner post into three pieces, after it got tangled in the stinging net. Theoretically, digging animals, or ones large enough to jump it, could bypass either over or under the net, and animals with thick fur are insulated against the fence’s charge. In practice, however, almost all curiosity seekers lead with the nose, and once that sensitive probe hits the fence, it’s nothing but “Adios!” (In an electronet system, the flock is still at risk from aerial predators. With one exception, my own losses from the air have been at most an acceptable two or three per season. Your mileage may vary.)
As the grass and weeds grow over the bottom charged horizontal in the net, its charge begins to ground out, until there is not enough “spark” in the system to stop a predator. Unless it is time to rotate the net to new ground anyway, it is easy to move the posts so the fence is standing, and confining the birds, but inside the existing perimeter. Now I can mow the perimeter line with the bagging mower, then again set up a tight fence over closely mowed sod.
It’s a good idea to walk the perimeter every day or so to make sure nothing has fallen on it, a green branch, for example, or accumulated on it to short out the system. I once had a flock enclosed on a piece of ground to be converted to a blueberry bed. Because of a slight slope to the ground, the birds kept scratching uprooted grass, dirt, and other debris over the bottom of the net. I saw what was happening, and each day reminded myself, “Hey, boy, better get that stuff pulled off the net.” And then one morning went out to service that flock, only to be confronted with several splashes of feathers outside the net. I grabbed the top of the net, not a whisper of charge. Mr. Raccoon had dined well off my procrastination. Since that time, I’ve always been careful to keep my fence lines clean, and keep ’em hot.
How hot? Get yourself a good fence tester, and use it often. I always test every roll of net in the system following a new installation, and routinely monitor every couple of days thereafter, always remembering that the fence is only as effective as the spark in it. It’s a good idea to spend the extra bucks for a good tester. My first tester had a series of five tiny lights, some or all of which would light, depending on the amount of charge in the fence. But it was almost impossible to see which lights came on in strong daylight. The tester I use now has a console with a clearly visible digital readout of voltage in the fence.
The highest voltage I ever read in one of my nets (a single roll, freshly mowed, on the AC charger) was 9700 volts. Yes, reader, that was nine thousand seven hundred! That’s enough voltage to wake you up, even wearing boots with rubber soles. And if you hit the fence with a knee on the ground, it will rattle your teeth. “Negative stimulus” defined. But even though the voltage is high (with a whiplash of a sting), the amperage is very low, so the potential for actual injury is correspondingly low.
Hazards of the Net
The current in any electric fence is not without its hazards, and it is essential to be constantly on guard against them. Warning signs on your fence are a good idea, and in some areas are required by law. Despite what I said above about the low danger of a “jolt”, it is believed that a shock from the fence to the head or spinal cord has greater potential for injury. It is therefore especially important to avoid contact with the fence when working close to the ground next to it. And please remember, it is extremely important to make sure infants are not permitted to crawl into any electric fence. There is one case on record of a baby who did indeed get tangled in a fence. While a single jolt would not have been injurious, repeated pulses of current to the trapped child resulted in its death.
I have occasionally had fatalities, wild and domestic, on electric fencing. I once had a low single-strand electric wire at the bottom of a goat fence. A dip in the ground allowed first a ‘possum, then later a box turtle, to get under the strand without contact. When the animal climbed up the slope of the dip, it became jammed between earth and wire, unable to retreat from the repeated pulses of current. Both animals died as a result. Now I try to avoid dips, or hold the bottom (uncharged) string close to the ground in a dip using a screw-on plastic insulator set low on a fiberglass rod. I no longer have such fatalities. Once or twice black snakes have tried crawling through the fence, once they settled the body over the bottom charged wire, they received repeated shocks and died as well. I do not know a solution to this problem, but as said, it has only occurred once or twice.
Finally, there can be problems specific to young birds. If inside older nets, young chicks will sometimes scoot right through the netting without getting a shock, leaving them vulnerable on the outside of the fence. I don’t know that I ever had any losses as a result, but that’s certainly a possibility. Once they manage to get “zapped” by the fence, they no longer scoot through it. I have had a few losses of young waterfowl, ducklings, and goslings, whose body conformation is more “front-loaded” in a way that makes it difficult to reverse and get out of a net, once they’ve pushed head and breast into the mesh trying to get through. Once tangled in the net, they are almost certain to die from the shocks unless I happen to come along pretty soon and release them.
I noticed last year that I had none of the latter two problems, escapes of young chicks, entanglements of young waterfowl, after I took care to use the newer nets exclusively (with the lower horizontals set much closer together than in the older versions) for the young fowl. I think that having the young birds with mother hens also helps with these problems, they tend to stay with Mama, rather than wander off through the net.
Storing the Net
With proper storage in the off-season, electronet will last a long time. I’ve read that the expected service life for a roll of netting is seven years, but the first nets I bought, more than ten years ago, are still in service at my place. Long life for the net depends on removing it from the field promptly when no longer in use (to minimize breakdown by UV radiation in sunlight). The wires that carry the charge are stainless steel, and I’ve never had them rust, but obviously they must not be left lying out on the ground.
To prepare a net for storage, fold it up as in the section “Moving the Net”, and lay out your “book” with the posts all in a tight bundle, with the net folded neatly in “pages” to one side. Now, tie a “lead line” around the middle of the bundle of posts, and pull it out so that it extends farther than the folded netting. Now roll up the net into a bundle, starting with the tied posts as the bundle’s core. Note how the tail of the “lead line” projects out of the bundle. If you pull on that tail, the bundle will roll out in a way that allows you to find an end post to start with as you lay out the fence.
It’s difficult to describe the problem that the “lead line” prevents, and most likely you’re going to ignore my advice until the first time you encounter it. Again using the analogy of a book, we can start either with the first page or the last page (the end post at either end of the net) when laying out the net. If we open into the middle of the book, however, it is extremely difficult to find our way out to the first or last page (one of the end posts). It can be a quarter-hour of frustration before you get the net opened out properly. After that, you understand the need for the lead line.
Once you have the net rolled (and note that this is the only time you ever roll the net), tie the bundle twice, one tie near each end. Now it is ready to store. But do not store on a floor, a shelf, or anywhere else mice can get to. It is imperative that you hang the rolled nets somewhere inaccessible to rodents. I hang mine from the roof rafters of an equipment shed. If you forget this essential point, you will make the mice happy (with the great place you’ve provided to chew nests in), but you will be very unhappy indeed.
Good electric net fencing is not cheap, but I wouldn’t cut corners on quality. If you buy the best equipment from a reliable company such as Premier, the initial investment in a roll or two of netting plus a decent energizer will set you back several hundred bucks. However, that investment buys you a fundamental tool for managing the homestead flock that with good care will last for many years. It buys you the ideal compromise between maximum health and well-being for your pastured flock, and maximum protection from the heavy hitters in the neighborhood.