To a lot of critters—raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, dogs—your free-range flock is a 24-hour all-you-can-eat chicken buffet. Maybe, must maybe, the local predators are afraid to run off with your chickens today. But it won’t last.
Trust me on this. I have been almost put out of business by predation several times. If it weren’t for the techniques described here, I wouldn’t have any chickens today.
What worked for me? Simple electric fences. Really simple electric fences.
One-Wire and Two-Wire Electric Fences
In it’s one-wire incarnation, the single wire is about 5″ off the ground. If you use a second wire, put it about 10″ off the ground.
You wouldn’t think such a low wire would work, but it does. Predators keep low to the ground when they’re sneaking around, and many aren’t really all that big to begin with: foxes, bobcats, and raccoons, for instance. But dogs and coyotes are also deterred by even the one-wire fence.
In the picture, you can see one of my two-wire fences. It’s just two strands of inexpensive aluminum fence wire held up with step-in fence posts. This is about the cheapest and easiest to set up fence you can imagine.
It surprises people that such an electric fence will keep chickens in and predators out, but it works! It helps that predators generally sniff at anything new they find, so they will get their noses zapped by a fence wire they could easily step over. That’s generally all it takes.
One thing I love about these fences is that you can simply step over them. No gates! When driving a tractor or pickup past them, it’s best to uproot a couple of step-in fence posts so the wires lie on the ground, so they won’t be snagged by the vehicle. This takes less than a minute.
The key to success here is to use plenty of step-in fence posts, especially if your ground isn’t perfectly level. If the wire is too high or too low, both predators and chickens will have no trouble getting past it. Fortunately, a step-in fence post only costs a couple of bucks, and aluminum fence wire is a real bargain, too. A quarter-mile spool (enough to fence 40 acres) cost around $30 the last time I checked.
A Fence That Leaks, But in a Good Way
If you’ve ever had a predator get into a chicken yard fenced in with chicken wire, you know that the the predator can kill every single chicken: they can’t escape. Worse, when panicked, chickens forget that their chicken-wire fence even exists and will try to rush right through it. Their heads and necks will make it through okay, but their bodies are too big, and they’ll be stuck in the fence like darts in a dartboard, waiting for the predator to pick them off at its leisure.
If a fox or other predator makes it into a yard protected by a one-wire or two-fire electric fence, the drama starts out the same way, but the chickens pass beyond the fence without a pause and rush off squawking into the distance. Because the flock scatters to the four winds, the predator is left with an empty yard, and is once more on the opposite side of an electric fence from its prey. Instead of killing your entire flock killed, it gets only one or two.
Not only that, but the chickens who left the yard will return around dusk and cross the fence a second time to get home. They won’t like it, but they’ll do it.
But, yes, sometimes a few of your chickens will learn to get past the fence on purpose, and free-range somewhere else for a few hours until returning home. In short, these one-wire and two-wire fences aren’t 100% effective. They’re more like 98% effective—or maybe only 95% effective if you make it easy and attractive for the chickens to escape.
- If you fence a large area, fewer chickens will escape.
- If the chickens never run out of feed, fewer will escape.
- If you keep your coops away from the edge of the fenced area, fewer will escape.
- If the voltage on the fence remains high, fewer will escape.
- If there aren’t any places where the chickens can duck under the wire or step over it, fewer will escape.
So this isn’t a magical anti-chicken barrier the way a chicken run walled and roofed with chicken wire can be. On my farm, it usually contains well over 95% of the chickens. We can reach 100% for a while if we get rid of the few habitual escapees.
What to Expect at First
At first, the chickens won’t respect the fence, since it just looks like a random obstacle to them. Also, their feathers are good insulators, so they get zapped mostly when they touch the fence with their feet or combs. This means they won’t get zapped every time. More like one time in four.
This lengthens the learning process. It’ll be several days before all the chickens are on the right side of the fence. But after a while they act as if it’s a glass wall. If I carry a bucket of feed to a hungry flock, they’ll come running as soon as they see me, but stop just short of the fence. They’ll wait impatiently for me to join them on their side of the fence.
Predators learn more quickly, since they investigate anything new with their noses.
In my experience, dogs and coyotes are terrified of electric fences. I once watched a coyote chase a hen that had strayed outside the fence. The frightened hen ran back to the flock, passing through the two-fire fence as if it didn’t exist. But the coyote went from running all-out to a sudden dead stop when it got close to the fence. It had learned its lesson well!
Raccoons seem to be without fear, and are willing to prowl the perimeter of a fence, looking for high spots or low spots that will let it in.
I’m not sure about bobcats. I think some of them learn to leap fences, but I’ve never seen this. Usually the fences keep them out.
History of One-Wire Poultry Fences
I first learned about this type of fence in a 1960 article describing Arbor Acres’ use of a single-wire fence to protect pullets raised on free range. Before the single-wire fence, they had employees spending hours every day opening doors on range houses in the morning and closing them at night. The simplicity of the fence was important to them because their pullet flocks occupied many acres, making permanent fencing prohibitive.
I later came across references to the same technique from the 1950’s, where similar fences were used as an anti-fox measure for British free-range breeding flocks.
Like many excellent techniques, these fences was forgotten after the industry shifted to confinement.
Electric Poultry Net Fencing
Electrified net fencing is sometimes necessary to stop stubborn predators or to keep chicken inside when they must be fenced tightly.
It’s more expensive than using simple wire fences, and if left in the same place for too long, grass will grow through the bottom wires, making it almost impossible to remove. Still, it has its uses.
My wife Karen likes electronetting more than I do. For one thing, I trip over it. For another, I hate moving fences, and electronet has to be moved more frequently. It also shorts out more easily than wire fences. But it’s a more serious, more physical barrier, which makes a difference. (One difference is that it’s a barrier to farmers as well. I sometimes trip over netting fences.)
Karen uses electric net fences to protect her broiler areas, while I prefer use one- and two-wire fences for our hens. This works well because broilers won’t use a lot of space anyway, and we use daily-move pens and have to shift the electronetting frequently, preventing the grass from entangling the fence. Our hens get much more elbow room and the fences are shifted more rarely.
My personal favorite it the kind they call “garden fencing.” This comes in rolls about sixteen inches high, and can easily be stepped over. The usual electronetting, designed to keep sheep in, is about four feet high and is a real barrier to the farmer.
The best electric fencing comes from Premier.
The other option is to add electric fence wire to existing permanent fences on the farm. This works very well. The most important wire is the one closest to the ground, which should be 4-6 inches off the ground, as with single-wire fences. Another wire at the top can provide an unpleasant surprise to climbing predators. I use plastic nail-on insulators on wooden fenceposts and clip-on insulators for T-posts.
I prefer aluminum wire for most jobs, but not here. Why? Because you’ll need to keep the fenceline weed-free with a weed-whacker, which will dish out more abuse than aluminum fence wire cant take. Use heavy-duty galvanized fence wire instead.
In my experience, it doesn’t seem to matter which electric fence insulators you use, or which brand of aluminum fence wire, but I think Red Brand makes a superior grade of galvanized wire.
Electric Fence Chargers: Bigger is Better
To energize the electric fence you need a fence charger. I prefer very powerful AC-powered energizers. The bottom wires of these chicken fences are close to the ground. They’re quickly shorted out by grass, weeds, or molehills. It takes a powerful fence charger to keep adequate voltage on the fence in the face of these everyday challenges. My favorite fence charger is the Parmak Super Energizer 5.
I think it’s better to string thousands of feet of wire along the farm than to use battery-powered chargers, which just aren’t powerful enough. I’ve used 2×4’s up on end to get the wire ten or twelve feet up in the air when it crosses gates, or insulated wire buried a few inches underground across the gateway. Otherwise, I just run the wires along the top of the posts of my farm’s perimeter fence.
I prefer energizers with built-in voltmeters, so I can see at a glance if the voltage has fallen into the red zone. In general, this means I buy Parmak units, because most of the others don’t have meters. My favorite model is their “Super Energizer,” which is very powerful indeed. That’s what I use on the front pasture to protect the laying hens. The “Maxi-Power” line is also good, though less powerful.
If you insist on buying a battery-powered or solar charger, get a 12V unit. The 6V units have minimum zap, which means they can be shorted out by a few blades of grass. I was pretty happy with Parmak’s most powerful 12V charger. This “weatherpoof” unit only lasted about five years when exposed to the elements, so putting a a roof or a five-gallon bucket over it might be a good idea.
Premier also makes excellent chargers. Karen likes them better than Parmak, and that’s what she’s using on the back forty to protect the broilers (my super-long wire from the barn to the back forty has been mothballed). She uses a Premier Intellishock 50, which is a 12V battery-powered unit.
I doubt that solar chargers are worth the extra cost, but then I’m in Western Oregon, which has a lot of cloud cover. The convenience of not having to monitor and lug around batteries is worth paying money for, but you get even more convenience by putting an AC-powered charger in the barn and stringing a wire all the way to the back forty.
The hardest part of installation is getting a good ground connection. I prefer pounding in ground rods along the drip line of my barn’s roof.
It really helps to have the units placed so you can see the meters easily when you wander in and out of the barn.
When Fences Fail
When a clever predator learns how to get past my fences (of whatever kind), I turn to trapping. I find snares effective and relatively simple. I found Hal Sullivan’s book, Snaring 2000, to be very useful.
I find that predators are OCD, especially bobcats, following exactly the same path night after night, and by the time you’ve lost a few chickens they’ve created an obvious game trail. This means that you can set snares to target an individual, chicken-eating predator, without declaring war on the entire animal kingdom.
I’ve shot predators from time to time, but only for coyotes that are dumb enough to present themselves during the day. At night, I want my beauty sleep.
I’ve found live traps to be far less effective than snares, and I’m baffled by leg-hold traps.
Final tip: if you can use snares inside your perimeter fence, your results will be less random.