Fences: Keeping Chickens In & Predators Out
Way back when I was ready to purchase my first house, high on my list of must-haves was a place to raise chickens. To make sure the property was zoned for chickens, I looked for a place that either had chickens or had near neighbors with chickens. What swayed me to select the house I finally purchased was that it was fenced, cross-fenced, and loaded with chickens. The chickens, in fact, came with the property. How much better could it get?
Well, it did get better because the fences were all six-foot chain link. In the 11 years that I lived there, I lost few chickens. Of those, one bantam hen was taken away by a hawk (that I know of for sure because I saw it happen) and the others were mostly chicks that popped through the fence and got carried off by a neighbor’s cat. My biggest regret in leaving that property was giving up the chain link fence.
I now live on a farm where we enjoy the wildlife as much as we enjoy our poultry. Trouble is, the wildlife have as much interest in poultry as we do. Our chicken yard (pasture, really) is fairly large, so the cost of enclosing it with chain link would be prohibitive. For years we fenced our poultry with the same high tensile, smooth wire, electric fence that contains our four-legged livestock. It does a good job of keeping out the larger predators, but does not keep out the smaller chicken eaters, and certainly does not keep the chickens in. So occasionally we lose a bird that wanders into the orchard for lunch and meets a fox with the same idea.
Last year, I realized my dream of once again having a yard protected by chain link. It’s only a smallish yard, designed for housing setting hens, and growing birds that are more vulnerable to predators than mature birds. Unlike that long-ago chain link fence, this one has an electrified scare wire running along the outside bottom. The idea is to zap any animal that tries to either dig under or climb over.
Barring the expense of chain link, the (next) best kind of fence for chickens is wire mesh with fairly small openings that neither chickens nor predators can get through. Of the many kinds of wire mesh available, one that works well for chickens and is relatively low on the cost scale is the yard-and-garden fence with one-inch spaces toward the bottom and wider spaces toward the top. The small openings at the bottom keep poultry from slipping out and small predators from getting in. The fence should be at least four feet high; higher if you keep a lightweight breed that likes to fly. Bantams and young chickens of all breeds are especially fond of flying.
A common type of wire mesh fence is poultry netting, also called hexagonal netting, hex net, or hex wire. It consists of thin wire, twisted and woven together into a series of hexagons, giving it a honeycomb appearance. The result is lightweight fencing that keeps chickens in but will not deter motivated predators from breaking through with brute strength. I have used it to create breeder runs, although those enclosures were situated inside that long-ago chain link fence.
Hex net comes in mesh sizes ranging from 1/2″ to 2″. The smaller the mesh, the stronger the fence. The smallest grid, called aviary netting, is made from 22-gauge wire and is used to pen quail and other small birds, to house chicks, and to prevent small wild birds from stealing poultry feed.
One-inch mesh, woven from 18-gauge wire, is commonly called chicken wire. It’s used to pen chickens, pigeons, pheasants, turkey poults, ducks, and goslings. Rolls range in length from 25′ to 150′, in height from 12″ to 72″. The shortest wire is used to reinforce the lower portion of a woven wire or rail fence to keep little critters from slipping in or out.
So-called turkey netting, made of 20-gauge wire, has 2″ mesh and is used for penning turkeys, peafowl, and geese. Heights range from 18″ to 72″, length from 25′ to 150′. Mesh this large is difficult to stretch properly. For a tall fence, therefore, many fencers run two narrow rolls, one above the other. Either staple the butted edges to a rail or fasten them together with cage making rings crimped with a clincher tool designed for the purpose (available at feed stores and small stock suppliers).
A less common variation, called rabbit netting, has 1″ mesh at the bottom and 2″ mesh toward the top. It comes in 25′ rolls, is 28″ high, and may be used to pen chicks and poults (baby turkeys).
Unless you treat hex wire with great care, don’t expect it to last more than about five years. Options in protective coating are galvanizing and vinyl. Some brands are galvanized before being woven, some afterward. The former is cheaper but should be used only under cover, since it rusts rapidly in open weather. Plastic-coated wire is a bit more rust resistant and some people find the colors more attractive than plain metal.
Hex net is relatively easy to put up, although it tears readily, and slight tears grow into big holes. Netting also tends to sag. For a poultry run, erect a stout framework of closely spaced wood posts with a top rail for stapling and a stout baseboard both for stapling and to deter burrowing; make sure no dips at soil level leave gaps for sneaky critters to slip under. To keep the wire taut, taller fences need a rail in the middle as well. Hand stretch the mesh by pulling on the tension wires — the wires woven in and out at the top and bottom of the netting. Taller netting has additional intermediate tension wires. To avoid snagging skin and clothing, especially around gates, fold under the cut ends before stapling them down.
Digging a trench and burying the bottom portion of a net fence deters burrowing. An alternative is to use apron fencing, also called beagle netting, consisting of hex wire with an apron hinged to the bottom. The apron consists of 1-1/2″ grid, 17-gauge hexagonal netting, 12″ wide and is designed to keep raccoons and foxes from burrowing into poultry yards.
Set posts 6′ to 8′ apart. Cut and lift the sod along the outside of the fenceline. Install the fence with the apron portion spread horizontally along the ground, and replace the sod on top. The apron will get matted into the grass’s roots to create a barrier that discourages digging.
You can use this concept to create your own apron fence with any 12″ wide hex wire, clipped or lashed to the bottom of a hex net fence. Whether you buy apron fencing or devise your own, the chief disadvantage is that soil moisture causes rapid rusting and the apron will have to be replaced every couple of years. Unless the wire is vinyl coated, brushing it with roofing tar will slow rusting.
To further protect your chickens against climbing predators, string electrified wire along the top and outside bottom of your fence. The top wire might be strung on T-post toppers, while the outside bottom wire should be strung on offset insulators. The advantage to using wire mesh with electrified scare wires is that you have both a physical barrier and a psychological barrier. Should the psychological barrier fail (the power goes off) you still have the physical barrier.
An all-electric net fence sounds great in principle, but I have personally found that it wasn’t the best fencing product for my needs. It must be constantly electrified; if you live in an area prone to power outages you must use a battery or solar operated energizer and make certain it’s always fully functional. Chickens can get tangled in the polywire net and get electrocuted (tearing the net in the process). Other issues include difficulty keeping the net taut, problems getting line posts into rocky soil or drought-ridden clay, and the inconvenience of corner guy wires.
No matter how secure your fence is, it’s only as secure as your gates. When we had our chain link poultry run commercially installed, we had to deal with predator-size gaps at the sides and bottoms of the gates. Even when a gate is initially installed close enough to the ground, traffic from walking, wheelbarrows, mowers, and so forth eventually wears grooves under the gate. Installing a sill will solve that problem. Sink a pressure-treated 4″ by 4″ under each walk-through gate and a 6″ by 6″ under a drive-through gate, or pour a reinforced concrete sill of similar size. This small investment prevents soil compression from creating ruts beneath your gates — helping keep your birds in and predators out.
Originally published in the April/May 2008 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine and regularly vetted for accuracy.