The Deer Fence
Constructing our deer fence was our major project in the summer of 2015. After a tremendous amount of research, a significant investment and MANY hours of pounding in posts and hanging deer fence, we were able to put up over a mile of fence surrounding our entire property. Below, I'll talk about a couple things to consider if you are thinking about putting up a fence, provide an overview of how we constructed ours and discuss some of the challenges we faced.
When you plant an orchard, it is absolutely critical that you understand and address threat of deer in your area. In addition to eating your fruit when the trees are grown, deer can also cause havoc by rubbing their antlers on the bark of your trees or eating the new growth on your saplings; both of which can kill the trees. A single deer getting into a field of new trees can destroy the entire field in an evening! Trees are expensive, and crossing your fingers that deer do not give you any headaches is probably a risky strategy.
To determine the deer activity in your area, you can speak with your local Department of Fish and Wildlife or equivalent organization as they usually track deer populations. It is also wise to talk to your neighbors about activity in the area, and scan the area to determine what sources of food are available for deer outside of your field. Once you have a good understanding of the potential threat of deer in your area, you can evaluate your options for deterring them.
There are a number of options for deterring deer from your field including repellants, planting strategies, keeping your dog on deer patrol, and fencing. The University of California reviews a brief summary of your options here. Fencing is the only method that will exclude deer from your property, it is however also the most costly. For us, fencing was ultimately the route that we felt made the most sense. We have moderate to high deer activity in our area, and a large investment in our trees. At the end of the day, the risks and expenses associated with losing trees and reducing and delaying our production outputs outweighed the cost of putting up a fence.
There are a few options for the type of fence you build including woven wire, electric, and polypropylene. Polypropylene fences are the most common fence used for deer as they are the most cost effective, nearly invisible from a short distance away, and fairly easy to construct. Ultimately, any fence of moderate strength that is tall enough should be effective in excluding deer. What's tall enough you ask? Well, that's a good question. The material I've read seems to indicate that you need an 8 foot fence to guarantee exclusion. Some deer may be able to get over a 6 or 7 foot fence. However, a deer will consider its landing as wel. They aren't built to land a jump from 7 feet and a painful landing will serve as a deterrent from repeat offenses. It likely depends on the deer's motivation; if your field serves as the only food source in the area, they'll be more willing to take the pain in order to get in. My neighbor also pointed out that potential mating opportunities would make them jump the fence as well. He went on to add that they were known to clear a 5 foot fence when in a drought.
We chose the polypropylene fence for the reasons listed above (not to mention the fact that it was really the only option that we could make work within our budget for the project). It’s a 1.5 inch plastic mesh that's quite strong; you wouldn't be able to break it without a knife or a significant amount of leverage. It comes in different grades, and we got the 110g fencing, which seems to be sufficiently strong. The 80 grade appeared to be quite flimsy and I wouldn't recommend it for anything other than garden use. We attached the fence with strong UV treated zip ties to 10 foot metal T-posts. We also added a wood post every 5 posts to increase its strength. The fence is hung at 7'2", so we'll have to monitor if deer manage to find a way in (further discussed below under "maintenance"). We would have loved to gone up to 8.5 foot fencing, but it would have required going up to 12 foot posts, which are significantly more expensive and harder to find.
There are a number of businesses that sell this type of fencing. All of them offer discounts buy purchasing the fencing in kits. However, we found that if you shop around and buy all of the materials separately, you can definitely save some cash. This is because all of the deer fencing places overcharge for the posts, which we were able to find cheaper locally at a farm supply store. The fencing and posts are by far your biggest expenses. Zip ties are cheap, but the cheapest we could find ground stakes were about $1 a piece, and you need about 1 for every 7 feet of fencing. Plan to budget $8,000-$14,000 for everything per mile of fencing depending on your height, fence quality and number of gates. That’s if you build it yourself, which I'm about to tell you how to do.
Constructing your deer fence:
Minimum Materials Needed:
• Prolypropylene Fencing
• T-Posts / Wooden Posts
• Zip Ties
• Ground Stakes
• Post Pounder
• Gates and Gate Hinges
• Measuring Tape
Planning your fence location and clearing land: Planning where you put your fence and clearing the land accordingly may very well be the most time consuming part of the endeavor if you're like us and you don't have an excavator, but have a property surrounded by trees and brush. You really want to try to place the fence on your property boundaries if possible, otherwise you are effectively losing land and might end up losing the land permanently if you're not maintaining it. However, you'll need to reach out to your neighbors to come to an understanding. If they are unwilling to keep the border clear or let you clear the section, you'll have to pull the fence a few feet off the line and maintain it yourself as you can't have brush growing into and damaging your fence! We are actually really lucky to have awesome neighbors who used their excavators to clear most of our property lines so we could build the fence! Without this help, the project wouldn't have been completed in the summer as there was a tremendous amount of bramble to cut down, and it would have taken us ages get through that with a machete and loppers. If you are putting the fence adjacent to a wooded area, you'll want to trim the trees back as much as you can before you put the fence in as there isn't much opportunity to do it afterwards without damaging the fence. I'll discuss this further in maintenance.
Step 1 - Line it up and mark it out.
This step is fairly straightforward. Once you've figured out where your fence will go, tie a taught guideline a couple feet off of the ground to use as your guide. A heavy line that the wind won't blow around much is best. Make sure there is no brush or debris that bends the line at any point. Once the line is in place, you can lay the posts about where you want them to go. We did not measure out our spacing for placing the post. At 12 foot spacing, we just laid the 10 foot post out parallel with the line and eyeballed 2 feet before laying the next post. It saves time and you don't need to be perfect with spacing. Next, use brightly colored ground paint to mark out where the post will go into the ground. At this point, you're only marking the placement of the post left to right, not how close or far away from the guideline it is as you'll do that in the next step. You'll also want to use the paint to mark the post itself to indicate how far it will go into the ground. We just marked it 4-5 notches above the blade on each post, which was about 2 1/2 feet.
Step 2 - Show me your post-pounding face
Pounding in posts is really a 2-person job, although, but it can be done individually if your careful. You'll need a ladder, post pounder, and level for this step. Place the post pounder on the stake, tilt if off of the ground, and place it on your mark. Place the level on the back of the post so it stands straight up and down front to back. If the post is bending the line, or if it's a couple of inches off the guideline move it into place accordingly so the post just barely brushes against the guideline.
Climb the ladder and start knocking it in. You'll often run into rocks, roots, or hard ground halfway through; in which case the best course of action is to channel beast mode and it will break through the obstruction eventually. With 2 people, the person on the ground should hold the ladder, and make sure that the post doesn't twist so the back of the post stays parallel with the guideline (otherwise, sometimes the post will go in sideways and there's nothing you can do about it other than take it out). Once it's in, the post is rarely straight, but you can use the level to figure out which way it needs to go and push it into place. The ground will settle around where you've pushed it and it should remain straight.
If you execute this step correctly, you should end up with a straight fence. Like I say, you can push the posts where it needs to go if it's not in straight, but if you don't get it placed in the same place consistently relative to the guideline the fence will not look straight and the only way to correct it is to pull the posts out (which sucks) and pound them in again. You should absolutely where ear plugs as it gets really loud and you'll have a headache at best and hearing loss at worst if you don't.
Step 3 - Hang the fence
Once your posts are in, you're about ready to hang the fence. First step is to mark the posts at the height you want to hang the fence at. If you bought a 7 1/2 foot fence, they recommend that 6 inches lay flat on the ground to keep critters/deer from going under it. We marked ours at about 7'2" and left 4 inches on the ground to get the extra height. On a T-post fence, the top of the fence will always be right above one of the notches in the post, so you just mark the notch that is closest to your desired height for hanging.
Now you can roll out your fence along the back side of the posts. Next, you attach the top of the fence to each post with zip ties above the notch that you marked. You'll want to pull the zip tie as tight as you can without breaking it so it can't slip below the notch. It is VERY important that you pull the fence straight as you attach it, but you don't need to pull it tighter than it would lay against the fence on its own. You're attaching it to the fence, not pulling it tight. If there are any gradient changes, the fence will be a little bit wavy, which is what it is and I will discuss below. If you pull the fence too tight when you are hanging it you will put unnecessary stress on the zip ties and bend the posts, which will only serve to weaken the fence considerably. Once the top of your fence is hanging, you can go back and attach the rest of the fence with 4 more zip ties on each post, pulling downward on the fence as you attach it. If you use one of the zip ties on the very bottom of each post, you'll make your stakes more effective.
Step 4 - Stake it in
If you hung the deer fence at the proper height, you should have 6 inches of fence laying on the ground on the back side if the fence (4 inches in our case). You'll want to use 12 inch kinked stakes so they won't slip out. If the ground is hard, the stakes will bend instead of going in properly, so it's really best to do this step after it rains to avoid this. We used about 2 stakes for each section of fence. Another good thing to do at this time is to hang brightly colored flags along the middle of the fence so the deer can see the new border.
Gates: Unless you have no need to get inside the fence yourself, you'll probably need a gate to access them. We put in a total of 4 gates to be able to access the property from a few different places. Gates are another thing the deer fence manufacturers overcharge for, so I recommend getting them independently. We had some 6 foot chain link fence panel that we were able to repurpose for gates. They are 16 feet wide (one is a double gate at 32 feet), so we can get most machinery through them. Gates are simple enough to put up, basically you'll need to concrete a 5 inch wooden post into the ground where your gate will hang and one where it will shut. If it's a particularly heavy gate, you should probably put in 2 connected wooden posts on the side the gate hangs from to keep the gate from tipping the post over. From there you drill in 2-3 holes in the gate and insert lag bolts that will hold the gate. Attach carriage bolts to the gate and hang it. If it's not straight, you can adjust the gate by screwing or unscrewing the lag bolts accordingly to adjust. Our gates turned out okay, although I would recommend watching some youtube videos on the subject and trying to pick up something that we missed.
Corners: From what I've read, corners are one of the weaker points of your fence. If your using t-posts, there are a number of brace packages and anchors you can purchase to support them. I've also read that you may want to reinforce the approach posts to the corners as well. We just used a wood post on all of our corners and think that should be enough. I'll update this article if we ever encounter issues with any of our corners.
Hills: Everytime there is a gradient change in the terrain you are building the fence on, it will create a wavy fence where you hang it. In addition to it being aesthetically displeasing, it can also lower the height of your fence if it is severe. To the best I can tell, there is no way to avoid this. There are however a few things you can do to mitigate the issue a bit. You can try to cheat a little bit with the height you hang the fence on each post to reduce or spread out the effect of the gradient change. You can also straighten the fence if you strategically zip tie closed a couple of the squares in your fence grid…just try pinching a few with your hands in the place it is bulging and see if it makes the problem better or worse. It may also help to space the posts more tightly where the gradient changes, but this is a costly option, especially if you have a lot of undulating hills. Probably the best thing you can do for this issue is to not pull the fence too tightly when you hang the fence as this seems to just make the problem worse. If your reading this and you know any better way to address this issue, please write them in the comments.
As you put up your deer fence, it's important to realize that it's very much a maintenance item. If you want to put it up on the cheap and forget about it, you may as well not even bother. You need to keep the fence line clear of brush and bramble or plants will grow into and damage your fence creating holes and opening the door for deer and other creatures. This should be done annually at a minimum. If your fence is along a wooded area, you'll need to check it out after each wind storm to see if any branches have fallen on the fence and taken it down. In the short time our fence has been erected this has already happened to us. Fortunately, the tree limbs broke the zip ties and we were able to easily repair the fence after cleaning it up. Zip ties will be the first part of the fence to degrade due to UV damage (even if they are treated), and you should plan to add additional zip ties every 5 years. The Polypropylene fencing material should be good for about 15 years.
Maintenance also includes monitoring the fence's effectiveness. In the first years you should diligently monitor your property for signs of deer tracks or damage inside the fence. If you see signs of deer, scout your property in the dawn and dusk hours to see if you can see how they are getting in. Deer are very much creatures of habit, and if they get in once, they're likely to return on a daily basis as long as there's a food source. We have on average about 6 additional inches from the top of the fence to the top of the posts. If we see deer getting into our field our plan is to run barbed wire along the very top of the fence in weak spots. If that proves ineffective, we'll explore other options to heighten the fence in those places. I'll update this article as we have any issues.
Whew, that was a long one. I think I've covered about everything you'll need to know to build your own fence, but if I've left anything important out or got anything wrong, please write in the comments or send me a message. A deer fence is a huge time and money investment, but if your livelihood depends on your crop and you anticipate problems with deer it should pay dividends in spades for years to come.