Ever since the first white settlers put palings in the ground to stop stock wandering in the late 1700s, fences have enabled the growth of Australia as a viable, independent nation, reflecting fascinating insights into landscapes and history along the way.

Story By Ian Glover

Salty sweat continually streams into the eyes of fencer Andrew Lordan. He wipes it away with a clenched, gloved fist, swiping the flies at the same time. It’s hot and the water bottle is copping a fair serve. He belts another steely into the ground, then threads the end of a coil of wire through it. “How come you’re using gal star pickets?” the farm hand says. “Aw, the bloke at Elders told me that all the black ones are made in China now – bend like bloody liquorice apparently, so I bought these.” “Must be more expensive.” “Yeah, they are, but at least they work, and apparently Aussie manufacturers aren’t allowed to use that tar-based coating anymore for environmental reasons – give us a hand with the strainer post, willya?” Both men struggle with the section of tree trunk that will form a rock-solid base for the fence, keeping it taut. The hole, dug with an auger, is too small, so they’ll have to enlarge it with crowbars. The ground has a small layer of topsoil, then clay, then kaolin, hard as the hobs of hell. It takes an hour to enlarge the hole, insert the strainer and pack down the earth around it with crowbars. It’s a scene that’s been going on in Australia since fencing wire was introduced in the 1840s, though as Andrew points out, the materials are changing. “These days, except for special situations or conditions that require wood, I prefer to work all steel, using lengths of railway iron or steel pipe for strainers, hammered in three to four feet deep [0.9–1.2 metres] with a hydraulic ram,” he says. Not surprisingly, no-one knows the total length of the fences that stretch across our country. In the 1990s, academic Dr John Pickard of Macquarie University, researching the costs of rural fences (typically $2500 a kilometre, with specialised vermin-proof upwards of $15,000 to a maximum of $36,000 per kilometre), found that the last census of New South Wales fences recorded 2.6 million kilometres of them with a contemporary value of $3 billion. That census was conducted in the 1890s!

This story excerpt is from Issue #62

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2009