Wire in the Blood
The origins of chicken wire, by Julie Moore
There is little doubt that chicken wire is a versatile material. It is used to build inexpensive cages for small animals, while those who are creative make sculptures, baskets and picture frames. Chicken wire is generally in evidence in schools, at sports facilities and at airports, embedded in molten glass to create tough, almost bullet-proof, fire-retardant partitions.
Today there are few signs left of Norwich’s industrial past, neither its importance as the centre of the textile industry nor for the invention of chicken wire.
The town was renowned for producing fine woollen cloth for export to Europe and Russia in the 1760s. As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum, the increased mechanisation, first with water and then with steam, undermined Norwich as a manufacturing centre. The textile trade moved northwards to the Yorkshire woollen towns.
Iron works, shoe factories, an electricity generating company and brewery moved in to provide employment for the former textile workers. From the mid 19th Century to the mid 20th Century, Barnard, Bishop & Barnards’ Norfolk Iron Works was a major part of the industrial landscape of Norwich.
In 1826, Charles Barnard (1804-1871), the son of a farmer, left his native village of Bracon Ash and set up as “an ironmonger, oil and colourman” in Market Place, Norwich. By 1842, Charles had established retail workshops in Pottergate making ironwork for domestic and agricultural implements. Having lived on the land, he was aware of the havoc animals could cause to crops and he wanted to find a way to keep small animals and chickens penned in an area. Inspired by the now defunct cloth-weaving looms, he began experimenting by weaving wire netting on a machine and went on to develop a way to manufacture a mesh fence out of thin, flexible, galvanised steel wire twisted into hexagonal patterns on a powered loom. The idea took off and chicken wire is still sold worldwide today.
Following a partnership with John Bishop in 1846 and his own sons, Charles and Godfrey, in 1859, the firm of Barnard, Bishop & Barnards was established. The production of wire netting remained a core activity of the firm well into the 20th Century, including supplying 7,000 miles of wire netting for road building in Egypt during World War I. By 1928, the company had worked to diversify its fencing range to include the chain-link variety.
The chicken wire that we are familiar with is thin wire — usually 18 to 22 gauge — that is flexible and woven into a hexagonal pattern. It can be galvanised or PVC coated. Being easy to work with and its relative cheapness mean that it is attractive to many new poultry keepers.
PENNING IN AND BROODY BUSTERS
As a general rule, you should only use chicken wire to keep chickens in, not to keep predators out. One of the best ways to use chicken wire is as an internal barrier in the coop or run area to separate flock members when there is a need to: for example, when introducing new flock members or to isolate an injured hen.
If you have an unwanted broody hen, you can make a simple timber-framed cage using chicken wire in conjunction with a plastic mesh floor (this is kinder on the feet) as a broody buster, equipped with water and food. The cage and mesh floor does not provide a conducive environment for getting comfortable; there is no
dark hiding place; while the elevated mesh bottom allows cool air to circulate around the hen’s body, cooling her belly.
Chicken wire can also be used as temporary fencing in orchard areas and around the vegetable plot during the growing season. It can then be easily removed in the autumn to allow your flock to help clear and prepare the beds for winter and feast on any windfall fruit.
If your chickens free range, chances are that you need to protect certain individual plants and seedlings. A simple collar of chicken wire can be placed around small, delicate plants. This is normally enough to discourage chickens, provided they have plenty of other food on offer.
If you use the services of your flock in the vegetable garden, placing a home-made portable pen (chicken tractor) made from timber and chicken wire over a specific area means that your feathered workforce are able to ‘work’ where you want them to while the adjacent beds remain unscathed. The pen can double up as a cold frame by being covered with horticultural fleece or clear plastic sheeting when it is not being used as a tractor.
Chicken wire does, however, have limitations. It is thin and lacks robustness. It should never be used in isolation as a singular predator protection, but always in conjunction with other materials. The size of the weave creates opportunities for predators, such as snakes and rats, to pass through. A very determined fox can tear or bite through the wire. The holes are also small enough for small chicks to get caught in.
Whenever working with chicken wire, handle it carefully. When cut, the sharp edges can cause damage to a hen’s footpad and even an eye if the sharp edge is not properly secured. Avoid repeatedly bending the wire sharply as this will weaken the galvanised coating and over time it will be the first area to rust and fail.
Although it is called chicken wire, it does little to protect your flock on its own. What type of
protection you need will depend on your set up and the type of predators you are dealing with.
ALTERNATIVES TO CHICKEN WIRE
So what are the alternatives for protecting your flock?
Galvanised welded wire mesh is the best material for keeping your poultry safe and secure. Manufactured from steel, it is welded at each joint, which increases the strength and durability of the mesh structure. The mesh is then hot-dip galvanised (immersed in molten zinc), which makes the mesh corrosion/rust free.
Galvanised welded wire mesh rolls are available in various lengths, heights, mesh apertures (square and rectangular) from ¼in (6mm) up to 2in (50mm) and in gauges (wire thickness) ranging from 6 to 23 gauge.
Although the best material for protecting your flock, it is expensive. To minimise costs, you could use ½x½in for the bottom 3ft (1m) of your outdoor run and to seal off any openings in your coop, such as windows and vents. For the top 3ft of the run and ceiling (if you are providing a totally covered run), a larger mesh size of 1x1in would significantly lower costs. To deter digging predators, such as foxes, dig a 12in (30cm) trench around the perimeter of the run and either bury the mesh, or fill the trench with concrete blocks, or rocks, or both options as an added deterrent.
Take care when cutting the wire mesh as any small pieces of wire left behind can cause zinc poisoning if ingested by chickens.
Using galvanised welded wire mesh on outdoor runs creates a predator-proof outdoor space if properly constructed. But if your birds free range outside of the run, you will need to consider other forms of fencing.
Galvanised welded wire mesh should not to be confused with green PVC coated, border garden fencing mesh, which typically has large 10-15cm apertures. The gauge of the wire is not substantial and the weld nodes are distributed so far apart that, from experience, they are easily broken by snagging, strimmers or dogs.
Chain-link fencing, while not specifically made for chickens, if properly erected, will protect your flock from marauding neighbourhood dogs and keep your neighbour’s prized flower beds out of reach of any scratching feet. As chain-link fencing is expensive, it could be put to dual purpose use, doubling up as your boundary fence and that of your chickens.
Electrified poultry netting is a portable, electrifiable prefabricated fence. However, it does have a number of shortcomings. From personal experience, it is not appropriate for every situation. Being expensive for its relatively short lifespan, it is not low maintenance. It is necessary to weed and keep the grass cut short around the perimeter of the fencing on both sides to prevent the electrical current from shorting out due to overgrown plants on the lower ‘hot’ wires. The net needs to be properly secured to prevent it from forming gaps or sagging, which larger predators could easily jump over. It is hard to drive fence posts into rocky, dry soil and they will be prone to falling over. It will also not protect your flock from overhead predators.
To be effective, it must be electrified and it is susceptible to power outages if run off the mains. Investing in a solarpowered battery will keep the electricity bills down while providing a more reliable source of power. Remember that you will need to regularly check the voltage of the battery and recharge as necessary.
To complete the system, you will require an effective earthing rod or earth return wires back to the battery. This needs to be checked regularly, too, to ensure that the fence is actually operational and capable of producing the desired shock.
Despite its name, chicken wire has limited uses in keeping your flock safe and secure. Galvanised welded wire mesh is, without doubt, the best defence against predators. It is also important to ensure that your coop is properly secured at night with no opportunity for predators to gain access for a midnight feast. Never rely on one thing alone to protect your precious chickens.
ABOVE: Versatile chicken wire was invented and initially made in Norwich
TOP: Galvanised welded wire mesh is the best material for keeping your flock safe and secure ABOVE LEFT: Chicken wire is flexible wire woven into a hexagonal pattern ABOVE CENTRE: Galvanised welded wire mesh used in a brooder ABOVE RIGHT: Green PVC coated border garden fencing mesh typically has large 10 -15cm apertures
TOP LEFT: Electrified poultry netting is not low maintenance TOP RIGHT: Chicken wire can be used as an internal barrier to separate flock members when there is a need to — for example, when introducing new members ABOVE LEFT: Chicken wire can be used to protect individual plants ABOVE RIGHT: Chain-link fencing doubles up as Julie Moore’s boundary fence and also that of her chickens.