December 6, 2011

The Amazing Benefits of Wattle Fences

I’ve got to tell you about the amazing benefits of wattle fences. Not only do these look great but they are a sustainable product and one you can build yourself. In our continuing effort to cut cost, lower embodied energy, and use waste or otherwise unused and abundant materials we’ve stumbled on the idea of fencing our yard with a wattle fence.

Why are we even going to build a fence?

We have a dog and a cat and they both love to be outside. Without a fence they need to be tethered to us and that’s not nearly as fun for any of us. Our dog, Iggy, is a 7lb. Chiuaua mix so he’s naturally scared of people and generally protective of “his territory”. This makes a fence crucial and it means that a chain-length or other easy-to-see-through fence will only encourage his barking when someone walks past. Our cat, Dobby, is mostly an indoor cat. He’s too young, friendly, and curious for us to allow him to just wander the neighborhood so we really honestly do need a fence. Without one he may go home with someone else or try to meet a car head-on and we love him too much for either of those options so a fence is crucial.

What is a wattle fence?

Wattle Fence by Veggiesosage (from his Flickr Stream)A wattle fence is weaved similar to wicker (wicker baskets, furniture, etc) but unlike wicker furniture they are significantly more sturdy. These fences were and still are mainly used for keeping pigs, goats, even cows and other larger animals penned in so they have strength to match their beauty. We won’t need ours to be super strong but as we plan on having veggies and things we will want a fence tall enough to keep the deer from jumping it.

The picture of the fence above was grabbed off of Flickr from a user named Veggiesosage. It’s a great shot that shows you how a hurdle (or section of wattle fence) ends as well as showing you how they are weaved. There are loads of other examples online and I suggest that you check them out if you want to get a good feel for this very artistic and functional form of fence making.

How do you build a wattle fence?

To build a wattle fence upright stakes are placed in the ground (these are often called sails in the UK). Many fence builders will build the fence onsite and will stake the sails right into the ground but there are others who build inside of forms such as in logs that have pre-drilled holes which allow them to build sections of fences that can then be placed in the ground later. In the above photo you can see this section is built with the sails sticking out from a log.

After the sails are in place green branches, usually of hazel or willow, (though any green straight thin branches will do), are woven in and out of the sails. Often these weavers, (as they are sometimes called), are braided together to add stability and hold the sails in place better. Some builders build patterns into their wattle fences by using two weavers on either side of the sail before switching direction and some just build for speed without worrying about the finished look or creating a pattern. If you do a Google image search you’ll probably notice some wattle fence builders that use different colored weavers and even some that split their weavers in two before weaving them.

Why wattle?

Wattle fences are 100% natural and have low embodied energy as the materials can all be gathered locally. Plus the wood used in them is typically burned as kindling or left to rot but when they are left to rot they often poses brush fire hazards. Teresa and I want to able to make a functional low-cost fence in this fashion because wattle fences have served their purpose for hundreds of years proving that they work. Plus the technique can be shared with neighbors and friends. Rather than seeing our neighbors spend precious dollars at a big warehouse chain store on PVC based fencing that is made to look like wood we’d rather help them create a lasting and environmentally friendly fence that is not only not environmentally damaging (as PVC is) but is regenerative – that makes a positive impact on the plant.

How hard are wattle fences to build?

The process of building a wattle fence for the inexperienced (and that is what we are) is time consuming but the results can be extremely beautiful and the life of these fences can reach to ten years. If a sail has rotted it has likely done so near the ground but that rotted sail can be used as a guide for it’s own replacement and when a weaver rots it can be removed and replaced without too much fuss. This means repairs are low cost and very little maintenance is required. They’ll require more looking after than a PVC fence but they also won’t be creating toxins and when they do rot the carbon released would have been released by them had they been burned or left to rot on the forest floor making them carbon neutral.

We estimate that the yard space we want to fence will take us 24 to 72 working hours to fence. Clearly if we were digging post holes and installing a modern milled-wood or PVC fence we could probably have it done in 4 to 6 hours but the embodied energy would be much higher and the job would be much less rewarding. We plan to spend some time this winter and spring experimenting and building wattle hurdles to practice our speed. If anyone would like to join us please leave a comment. If the hurdles we build are good enough we might sell them as room dividers so keep an eye out for those too!

A living fence

Wattle fences that are built with willow sails often take root creating a living fence wherein the sails won’t rot and will actually sprout. Even if the sails don’t take root many wattle fence owners use the fences to support the growth of plants such as ivy, grapes, or other vines. Clearly these living fences have a place in the modern urban environment. We’ve long known that in densely populated areas we need to build skyward. Living fences, (even if the fence is only the support system and itself isn’t alive), provide an amazing opportunity for urban dwellers to expand their growing space, provide passive fruit (such as grapes) to the public, and to help clean the air of toxins.

Wattle fences are a great base for these vertical growth systems because they don’t make the vines go very far between cross-sections and provide ample places for the vines to wrap around. Wattle fences also serve as wind-breaks by slowing the air that comes through them and not forcing it over-the-top of them like a wall would. Such wind breaks can be very beneficial to home-owners, especially those living in high-wind areas in older homes or homes that are not as weather sealed.

As with cob, straw-bale, and other natural systems that we find ourselves drawn to we hope to see more people become interested in wattle fences and encourage you to learn more and try your hand at building one. Thanks for your interest and leave a comment below if you’d like to talk more about wattle fences.

December 6, 2011 | W.D.Orkoskey
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