The his­tory of num­ber 8 wire


New Zealan­ders have a quirky philo­soph­i­cal affin­ity with fenc­ing wire. The ‘‘num­ber 8 wire’’ can-do at­ti­tude is em­bed­ded in the Kiwi psy­che.

Num­ber 8 wire is rep­utably strong, durable, flex­i­ble and use­ful for many things. New Zealan­ders sup­pos­edly per­son­ify these qual­i­ties, which pos­si­bly ex­plains our fas­ci­na­tion with it.

How­ever, these days not many peo­ple would know how to tie off or join a length of num­ber 8 wire, let alone foot a strainer post, con­struct a stay assem­bly, or any of the other highly crit­i­cal com­po­nents of a sound and solid fence.

Hu­man set­tle­ments with their cul­ti­va­tions and farms have al­ways de­pended on en­clos­ing (or ex­clud­ing) an­i­mals or crops. Bar­ri­ers, com­monly stone walls, ditches, wooden rails or hedges, also served to de­fine bound­aries. These meth­ods worked well for many cen­turies. But they were very labour and re­source in­ten­sive to es­tab­lish on a wider scale.

This all changed with a rad­i­cal new process patented in 1855 and in­vented by English­man Henry Besse­mer. The Besse­mer process made steel avail­able in in­dus­trial quan­ti­ties, at an af­ford­able price, for the first time ever. The ad­vent of fenc­ing wire was one prod­uct that re­sulted from Besse­mer’s process.

The coloni­sa­tion of New Zealand, Aus­tralia and other parts of the world brought farm­ing prac­tices into the ‘‘new’’ world. The avail­abil­ity of wide ar­eas of land for graz­ing sheep and cat­tle co­in­cided for­tu­itously with Henry Besse­mer, his process and the cheap pro­duc­tion of fenc­ing wire in many forms.

Besse­mer’s in­ven­tion had a mas­sive im­pact on the world we know to­day. His process in­flu­enced the land­scape of modern New Zealand.

Farm fences are a com­mon fea­ture of al­most every re­gion in New Zealand but it’s easy to over­look their sig­nif­i­cance in just how they shaped the land.

Fence wire en­abled the sub­di­vi­sion of land and pad­docks. Farm­ing prac­tices were trans­formed as a re­sult.

Fenc­ing of­ten fol­lowed the sur­veyor, serv­ing as bound­aries and re­in­forc­ing the con­cept of pri­vate prop­erty own­er­ship. From as early as 1850, colonists in Can­ter­bury were quar­relling in court about prop­erty bound­aries.

No doubt solic­i­tors ben­e­fited hugely from these dis­putes. We are en­dowed with leg­is­la­tion as a re­sult – The Fenc­ing Act 1978 be­ing the lat­est ver­sion, set­ting out rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties around fenc­ing for ad­join­ing landown­ers.

In the South Is­land, early run hold­ers de­pended on nat­u­ral bound­aries such as rivers and ridges to con­tain sheep flocks. Men were em­ployed as bound­ary rid­ers to keep stock con­tained within runs. Stone fences were con­structed where the re­source was avail­able. Gorse was orig­i­nally in­tro­duced to cre­ate prickly hedges to con­tain stock.

The sheer size of runs of­ten meant that fenc­ing was im­prac­ti­cal as well as be­ing too ex­pen­sive. The ad­vent of cheap fenc­ing wire changed that. From the 1860s ad­ver­tise­ments for wire and fenc­ing com­po­nents such as stan­dards (flat steel posts or waratahs) were be­com­ing com­mon.

The Nel­son Ex­am­iner and New Zealand Chron­i­cle of 28 Jan­uary 1865 ad­ver­tised a typ­i­cal ship­ping con­sign­ment of ‘‘Two Miles Length of Mor­ton’s Colo­nial Sheep Fence’’.

Com­posed of gal­vanised twisted or stranded wire, gal­vanised stan­dards and wrought gal­vanised strain­ing pil­lars. This was in ef­fect, a DIY all pur­pose kit for the as­pir­ing sheep farmer of the day. The com­po­nents were qual­i­fied as be­ing ‘‘The most ap­proved fence in Mor­ton’s Cat­a­logue, on ac­count of its light­ness and dura­bil­ity, com­bined with cheap­ness’’.

Var­i­ous makes and styles of this early steel fenc­ing can be ob­served to­day in many parts of the South Is­land high coun­try, still stand­ing af­ter over 100 years of ser­vice.

At Molesworth, a good ex­am­ple is the 128km Hu­runui Rab­bit Board fence, con­structed from 1887 to halt the spread of rab­bits. Part of this fence still serves as the bound­ary be­tween the St James and Molesworth.

Many hard­ships were en­dured by early fencers in the ‘‘ra­zor­backs’’ of the high coun­try. In places, holes had to be drilled by hand in rock for fence stan­dards and then sul­phur melted in iron ket­tles, which was then poured into the holes, set­ting like con­crete.

Every part of NZ had its chal­lenges in terms of fenc­ing and styles evolved to suit lo­cal con­di­tions.

To­day Num­ber 8 wire has largely (but not en­tirely) been su­per­seded by high ten­sile wire or elec­tric fenc­ing. New Zealand is now recog­nised as a world leader in the fenc­ing in­dus­try.

The skills and ex­pe­ri­ence we have built up in farm fenc­ing, have evolved to de­velop other spe­cialised fences such as preda­tor proof fences. These are de­signed to ex­clude pests in main­land sanc­tu­ar­ies through­out NZ.

Fenc­ing wire, in its many forms, con­tin­ues to be a tool used to in­flu­ence the land to­day.

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