Fruit trees, animals, and electric netting

Animals and fruit trees are a natural partnership – after all, they evolved together, so it makes sense they work well together, as we’ve spoken about in other blogs.

But it has to be done right, as there are risks of having large animals like sheep under fruit trees.

One of our organic orchard buddies Phil Marriott runs Shropshire sheep under his lemon trees, and points out that they routinely eat the bottom metre or so of foliage from the trees (as you can see from the photo below).

They can also be naughty and try to climb the trees to reach more of the foliage, or try to push through fences into areas they’re not supposed to be.

Over the years, Phil has developed his ‘dream team’ by immediately excluding anyone that shows a propensity to do the wrong thing, because it only takes a couple of days for a new and unwelcome behaviour to spread through the whole flock.

One of the major downside of animals is the bother of having to use and manage electric netting fences, a common management tool used for shifting animals as diverse as sheep, cows, pigs and chickens around the orchard.

Electric netting keeping sheep in an orchard
Electric netting keeping sheep in an orchard

The most common complaints include the fence getting tangled in long grass and trees, shorting out and becoming ineffective, and needing regular moving and maintenance.

Many growers are moving instead to permanent netting systems to divide their orchards into small manageable blocks to shift animals through – but that’s a much more capital-intensive solution, which puts it out of reach for some people.

And of course animals take much more constant care than trees. You’ve got to take care of things like shelter, water and protection from predators, and pay constant attention to their welfare.

Chickens make wonderful companions for fruit trees, but need reliable protection from predators
Chickens make wonderful companions for fruit trees, but need reliable protection from predators

Despite the drawbacks, there is widespread agreement that the benefits of combining fruit trees with animals definitely outweigh the costs, which is why it’s one of the key strategies in our Permaculture in Action short course.

For many backyard fruit growers, chickens are the easy place to start, and they are a great fit with fruit trees.

The ideal situation is to be able to confine them around your trees for a short period, a few times a year, especially in spring and autumn. That way they’ll be providing the maximum benefit cleaning up pests as these emerge from the soil in spring, and again as they are preparing to overwinter in autumn.

The predator-proof chicken enclosure at Kalangadoo Organic Orchard
The predator-proof chicken enclosure at Kalangadoo Organic Orchard

However, on young trees chooks can give the tree roots a pretty hard time if you leave them in there for too long, which is why it’s great to have another option for where you keep them the rest of the time.

5 ways to prevent large animals damaging your fruit trees

We’ve written in other blogs how to identify which animals might be causing damage to your fruit trees, but it’s also important to think about strategies for preventing the damage!

In the case of big animals, it’s usually a case of protecting the trees using either tree guards, fences or netting enclosures.

A wire netting enclosure built to keep kangaroos away from a young fruit tree
A wire netting enclosure built to keep kangaroos away from a young fruit tree

Which of these you choose will depend on:

  • the specific pest damage you’re trying to prevent;
  • the size and age of the trees; 
  • whether you need a permanent or temporary solution; and/or
  • your capacity to buy or build something in terms of ability, time, materials and money.

So, while it’s impossible for us to give solutions for every specific situation, here’s our 5 top strategies:

  1. Deterrents: Once you’ve identified the pest, do some research into what they don’t like, and consider whether you can make the environment unpleasant for them. For example, hares are herbivores and are put off by the smell of meat, so a paste made out of animal fat and strong-smelling herbs applied to the trunks, or blood and bone scattered around the trees, may be enough to put them off.
  2. Tree guards: These can range from the simple corflute guards we use on the farm, which are fantastic because they’re durable and reusable (but have the disadvantage of not being wide enough to enclose the low branches, so they only protect the trunk) to a larger and more durable type of guard, which has the disadvantage of being more expensive and time consuming to build, and limiting easy access to the tree.
  3. Fences: Installing permanent fences to keep out animals like kangaroos, deer, hares or rabbits is an engineering challenge, and can be quite costly. However, if you’re serious about food growing it’s a fantastic investment and will pay you back many times in terms of protected future crops. Once you’ve identified the problem animals, do some investigation into the type of fencing recommended to keep them out; for example, a kangaroo exclusion netting fence needs to be at least 1.5 – 2.0 m tall, and is more effective if electrified. Deer fencing works best if a double fence is installed, and rabbits and hares will dig under a fence unless the bottom is protected with buried mesh. 
  4. Netting enclosures: These are a wonderful idea, and can serve the dual purpose of keeping out both larger animals as well as birds, fruit bats, and even possums. The one in the photo below (which we saw at Kalangadoo Organics) is made from PVC pipe. The walls are reinforced over the bottom half with chicken wire, with bird netting over the hoops at the top – a brilliant solution.
  5. Other animals: One of the natural predators of kangaroos and wallabies is the dingo, so a dog in the garden or orchard may keep them away.
A netting and fence enclosure protecting cherry trees  
at Kalangadoo Organics
A netting and fence enclosure protecting cherry trees
at Kalangadoo Organics

Building appropriate protection for your trees can easily become one of those jobs that keeps falling to the bottom of the ‘to do’ list, but in nearly every case it’s worth the time and energy. To help you bump it up the list, we’ve included some resources on building hoop net systems (such as the one above) in the short course Protect Your Crop From Birds.

The reality is, if you’re trying to grow food in an environment where lots of animals are hungry, you’ll need to build protection to make sure you get some. You may like the idea of sharing, but they don’t!

Consequences of netting

Most decision in farming (and gardening) involve weighing up the pros and cons, and this even applies to netting. You’d think it would be a no-brainer – put on the net and save the fruit, right?

Well here’s one of the downsides, which becomes obvious when you take the drape nets off.

A peach tree bent from the weight of the net
A peach tree bent from the weight of the net

It’s a great lesson in why it’s best to remove the nets as soon as you’ve picked the fruit, and while the trees still have leaves on them.

This is a 4 year old peach tree, which grew very well this year and yielded a lovely crop of peaches.

It was netted it in plenty of time to save the fruit from the birds, and what should have happened next was the removal of the nets. But, things got busy, it never quite got to the top of the ‘to do’ list, and you can see the consequence in the photo above.

Abi and Hugh removing nets - in winter!
Abi and Hugh removing nets – in winter!

All the growing tips (or “leaders”) at the top of each limb have grown bent over. If they’ve been held down by the net for too long while they’re flexible and growing strongly, they may have permanently taken on that bent shape and won’t spring back into shape.

There are two things we can take from this:

  1. It’s not difficult to correct – some careful pruning at the top of the limbs will usually remove most of the bend and this will help the limbs continue their growth in a mostly straight line next year.
  2. Notice how easy it is to influence the way a tree grows, so if you’re aiming for a particular shape of tree (espalier, for example), it’s not difficult to encourage the tree to grow the way you want it to. Find out more about how to create espaliers, vases, and other fruit tree forms in Pruning by Numbers: A Guide to Pruning Deciduous Fruit Trees.

That’s the silver lining in this particular cloud!