The American Enclosure Movement
Female bluebird on barbed wire.
For a pictorial history of terriers and their relationship to the Encloser Movement, click here.
The U.S. also had an Enclosure Movement, which was no less dramatic.
Land enclosure in the eastern U.S. was accomplished with split rail fences and stone walls, but when settlers reached the vast open plains of the American west, there were no trees or field stones for fencing. The result was free range cattle and sheep.
The situation was hardly ideal. Cattle were easily rustled or lost, and many fell prey to wolves and cougars. Sheep were "meals on heals" for coyotes and were easily lost as well.
Another problem was that open grazing meant open competition between sheep and cattle, with sheep cutting the grass down too far for the cattle to forage (the U.S. had huge sheep spreads in the second half of the 19th Century).
Finally, there was the problem of what to do about tick fever. Cattle in the far south west, below Oklahoma, were immune to tick fever, but the northern herds were not, and the practice of driving livestock north to Kansas City, Montana and Wyoming brought the scourge of disease into once-clean herds.
Two things changed it all: the rapid demise of the American Buffalo, and the rapid rise of barbed wire.
The buffalo were shot out over an incredibly short period of time, with railroads bringing in marksmen to shoot and skin anything that moved. Vast mountains of skinned flesh and bones were left for feral Indian dogs to consume.
In fact, most of the "wolves" of the Plains were not wolves at all, but feral Indian dogs (they looked just like wolves) abandoned by a people now being rapidly decimated by war and disease.
With the demise of the buffalo, came the importation of its smaller cousin, the beef cow.
With the cow came the cowboy, many of them ex-Civil War soldiers moving West for opportunity and fortune. This was the brief tenure of the "Wild Wild West," and the thing that brought it to a dragging halt was the rise of barbed wire.
In 1873, Joseph Glidden the 60-year old sheriff of DeKalb, Illinois, attended a county fair where he saw a demonstration of a wooden rail with sharp nails protruding from it hanging inside a smooth wire fence. The design was supposed to keep cattle and horses inside a small perimeter fence, and perhaps help keep dogs and other predatory creatures out.
Joseph Glidden, mutton chops and all.
Barbed wire was born.
Glidden applied for a patent, and it was granted, though the patent was later contested. The legal battle that ensued lasted three years, and went all the way to the Supreme Court. Before the smoke cleared, however, there were over 570 patented forms of barbed wire!
In very short order, thousands of miles of barbed wire fencing were strung -- so much that fence posts were a major export from both the East and West coasts.
Between 1875 and 1885, the national consumption of barbed wire jumped from 300 tons to 130,000 tons.
The arrival of barbed wire in the American West was of immense historical importance, for it ended the era of the Great American Commons of "free grazing". Now people could own land and keep others off it. Equally important, they could control access to water, and keep livestock out of crops, such as wheat and corn.
Barbed wire also meant that sheep and cattlemen could now improve the quality of their herds by stringing barbed wire to keep inferior bulls from mating with their cows.
Fencing disputes pitted cattlemen against farmers and sheepmen, and free-grass cattle ranchers against fenced-range cattle raisers.
These conflicts became fierce during times of drought when access to water and grass (green or not) meant the difference between bankruptcy and fortune.
Cattlemen used to driving herds across vast distances to known water and feed pastures would simply cut fences when they found them, and in some areas open warfare broke out.
In the end, of course, common gazing died across most of the American West, just as it had in Great Britain beginning 100 years earlier.
But barbed wire did not stay in the West -- it became a global productstretched around farms, ranches, buildings, prisons, and borders the world over.
In the Eastern United States, where hedge rows are not layed, as they are in Great Britain, barbed wire proved as useful as it was in the West.
Hedges in the Eastern U.S. are little more than strips of uncut forest and secondary growth, often dominated by rapidly-growing weedy trees, such as black cherry, black locust, and black walnut. These trees shade thin tangles of poke berry and wild grape, multiflora rose, kudzu, and honeysuckle. The result is not substantial enough to keep livestock out of crops.
Prior to barbed wired, farmers had to construct stone walls or erect split rail or plank fencing. These kinds of fencing are expensive and enormously labor- and material-intensive, and they also require a lot of maintenance.
With the invention of barbed wire, however, a farmer could simply stretch wire from tree to tree or post to post. The savings, in time and money, was enormous. Maintenance was virtually eliminated, as galvanized wire does not rust, rot, burn, need paint, or fall apart from frost heaving.
The ease of fence construction after the invention of barbed wire meant that new fences lines were easily created. Large farms that had once been open fields were now cut and carved with posts and barbed wire. Along these fence lines weedy strips soon took hold. Over time, many of these weedy strips have been colonized by small trees, bushes and vines, and in many instances full hederows have developed, almost always attended by population of groundhogs, fox, racoon and possum.
Truly, barbed wire is the "Devils' Rope," and yet it is also part of the story of working terriers in America, for barbed wire has created and protected much of the hedgerow habitat where so much of our quarry dens.
If you work terriers in the Eastern United States, you will eventually find your yourself crawling over and under barbed wire. The dogs themselves may occassionally get ripped running over it, and most folks eventually lose the bottom out of one seat of pants or another.
In the end, however, there is very little doubt that without barbed wire we would not have the quality of terrier work we have today.
And so next time we are in a jungle of thick hedge and the dog has just slipped into a hole under a jumble of broken down barbed wire fencing, let us remember that the fence is more than an obstruction -- it is construction that is vital to the habitat we hunt. Barbed wire is our friend.