Enhancing our Fencing Skills

Following our success replacing 150 metres of fencing at Poringland Woods, Matt presented us with a new challenge – replacing around 180 metres of fencing alongside a dyke at Eaton Common. This was another major project requiring four days to complete.

Eaton Common is around 6 hectares of meadow and wet woodland and is situated on the banks of the River Yare on the edge of Eaton Village. The common is the other side of the Norwich to Thetford railway line from Marston Marsh. It is accessible from Church Lane, Eaton, following a track that leads passed the Eaton Vale Activity Centre down to a level crossing. There is also a footpath from Marston Marsh between the Golf Club and the railway line that exits at the level crossing. The entrance to the common is the other side of the level crossing just off the track to Keswick Mill. The site is grazed by cattle during summer months to help manage the grassland and maintain the wealth of species that live there.

A dyke won’t stop us from building our fence. So as well as building a fence we are pretty good at building bridges too. πŸ˜€

In the northern corner of the site is a privately owned plantation of willows (Salix alba var caerulea) which are being grown for making cricket bats. The fence between the willow plantation and the common is maintained by the Fringe Project but had deteriorated and our Volunteers were here to replace it before the cattle return to graze the site. The 180 metre fence is along two sides of the plantation and sits on a bank just the other side of a dyke with one end butted up against another dyke and the other overhanging the mill bypass stream at Keswick.Β As well as installing box strainers at each end of the fence line we would be building box strainers on the corner of the site and installing turning posts to deal with the dog-legs along the dyke edge on the short side of the area. We would also have to remove the old fence posts and repair the post and rail fence along the river bank, so a lot for our volunteers to get their teeth into.

Our first challenge on Day 1 (25th April) was how to get across the dyke which was too wide to jump and too deep to wade. On our previous visit to Eaton Common in April 2018 we had replaced a cattle corral and the timbers from the old corral had been left on site. We realised that we could use these to make a bridge to span the dyke and thus the first problem was solved. Next task was to cut the existing barbed wire so that we could get into the plantation to provide a working space. (The bank between the fence and the dyke edge was too narrow for safe working.) Access achieved we began removing the old barbed wire and coiling this up for disposal. Paula then brush cut along the fence line to remove brambles and other stuff to provide a clear route for the new fence.

Once over the bridge it is full steam ahead taking out the existing posts and digging holes for the new ones. πŸ’ͺ

Once the northern corner was cleared a team set to work to build the first box strainer where the two dykes met. The old posts were removed and a position for the new structure agreed. The usual four foot deep hole was required for each post but as we dug beyond two feet the water started to fill the hole – we had reached the water table at this point! We still needed to dig down but were removing sloppy mud which was difficult to grab with our shovels and it took some time to get deep enough with the same thing happening with the second post hole. The posts were installed but with just wet earth to back-fill the post holes it was difficult to get a firm and stable structure. We wandered around the common with buckets searching for stones to provide ballast for the post holes and the main source for these were the many mole hills dotted around. We collected enough stones which we poured around the posts. It was a busy day for everyone clearing away the old fence posts and preparing the site for our next visit. Fortunately, Paula had been baking so we had three different delicious cakes to replenish our energy levels.

Some old posts just don’t want to go, but after a lot of digging and swearing the posts were persuaded out. πŸ€ͺ

Day 2 (26th April) our volunteers were back ready to carry on under the guidance of the two Matt’s. The two old turning posts were removed but whereas one came out relatively easily the other took a few hours to extract because a cross piece of timber had been nailed to the bottom to provide stability in the wet ground. The team didn’t know this and after many attempts to extract the post with our post-jack resorted to digging out the post leaving a rather large hole. It is probable that one or two naughty words may have been used during this mammoth task! The new turning posts were installed, and the team also knocked in the intermediate posts along the new fence line.

Meanwhile another group set to work constructing the box strainers on the corner of the area. The plan was to build two box strainers at right angles to each other, linked via a turning post, and all held together with struts and wires – a big job. It took most of the day to dig out the post holes but at least the ground was firm here and the water table a lot lower. It still needed a lot of effort to dig out the holes, install the posts and then cut mortices for the cross struts. The struts were fitted, and the structure braced using wire secured with Gripples.

Chipping away at creating the box strainers. πŸ”¨

We were back on Day 3 (2nd May) to build our final box strainer down by the river, add the final struts to the corner strainer and finish knocking in the intermediate posts. The box strainer went in reasonably easily once we had re-sited this because of a very large piece of timber buried in our initial location. The post and rail fence at the river end of the site was also rebuilt and around 35 fence posts knocked-in between the two strainers but leaving room for further adjustment. It was a warm day and the post rammers got heavier and heavier as the day wore on. The final struts on the corner box strainers were angled so it took some time to get the positioning right ready for these to be wired up. By mid-afternoon all the posts were in place and ready for the next task to install the barbed wire.

Some more digging, hammering and chiselling. Are we there yet? 🀨

Day 4 (9th May) our first task was to sort out the levels for the intermediate posts which had been installed but needed a final adjustment to get an even height along the undulating fence line. We used a string line between the two strainer posts but being over 100 metres the line sagged under its own weight. After a bit of head scratching and discussion we worked out an average height and the posts were knocked into the required depth. We regularly hear the phrase “No straight lines in nature” being shouted as we try to establish the position of things, but this gets pushed aside as we strive to ensure things are level and look right!

Fitting the three strands of barbed wire was the next big task. We started along the short edge (80 metres) and decided that the wire would be strained at the corner posts – it is important to always strain in the same direction to maintain consistency and stability. The first strand was fixed to the end strainer post and unrolled to the other end point wrapping it around the right side of the turning posts. Because of the long length and the turns, we used the strainer wrench on the second turning post to remove as much slack as possible and then used another strainer tool to tighten this to the end box strainer. This worked well and enable us to get a taut wire between the two points. The barbed wire digs into the turning posts and also catches on the intermediate posts so can be difficult to pull tight. The strands were secure at each end and the strainer tools removed. We worked steadily installing each strand of wire until all three were fixed.

Yes, we have made it. The fence is finished and it is a real beauty. πŸ’ͺπŸ‘πŸ˜Š

We then turned our attention to the longer edge which was straight, but the sheer weight of the wire meant that it sagged and caught on everything. The team walked the line freeing off the wire and taking out as much slack as possible. The strainer tool was than attached and the wire pulled as tight as possible before being secured with staples. Once all three strands were fitted barbed wire was stapled to the corner box strainer to fill in the gaps and to fill the gap between the box strainer and the northern dyke edge. The barbed wire was also stapled to all the intermediate posts. We were now trapped within the new fenced off area but cleared up all our tools and carefully negotiated our way over the barbed wire. Job done our final task was to dismantle our temporary work bridge and take the boards back to the log pile.

Some of the sights around the Common from a female Orange tip butterfly resting on some Lady’s smock/Cuckoo flowers, an amazing array of plant life in the dyke, Marsh Marigolds and Silverweed and our lovely new fence and box strainers. πŸ˜‰πŸŒΌπŸ¦‹

It has been four days of hard work spread over a few weeks (with other jobs in between) with some new skills learned by our old volunteers and a chance for our newer volunteers to build their skills. Challenges have been met and dealt with and we can now add bridge building to our repertoire along with Grippling barbed wire! We have had some laughs and chats and consumed a few cakes and many cups of tea/coffee in the pleasant surroundings of Eaton Common.