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Good fences make good neighbours

Good fences make good neighbours

Good fences make good neighbours

The fine art of fence building and mending is a lost art in many places. But not in the Bregenzerwald. Here, fences and their consequences for neighbourhood peace have a long tradition.

“It’s still overcast but getting better,” says Helmut Fink, stating the obvious. It rained the day before and the clouds are still low. The mountain peaks, which are still covered with snow, are hidden entirely by the mist. Now and then, the sun finds a gap in the clouds and its rays herald a change in the weather. “Overcast but dry weather is ideal for mending fences,'” Fink tells me. “Not too cold and not too hot.” In the so called “Veahstrauß” (cattle street), in the village of Schoppernau below the church, there is a fence in need of repair. The houses in this area are quite close together. In spring and especially in autumn, the cows are driven past this area on their way to pasture. For a long time, there were communal cattle pastures, which could be used by all farmers. Such grazing rights are still common today in some mid-elevation pastures. Such communal areas certainly have their advantages: Instead of creating small-scale boundary fencing, all that is needed is a fence around a large pasture area. For a time, this practice transformed Schoppernau into one big community property. Unfortunately, however, there were always troublemakers, especially around the farmhouses. This primarily included small animals, i.e. ravenous goats who were accustomed to climbing rocks in the mountains. These goats were also skilled at negotiating the fences in the valley to get to some of the goodies in the farmer’s garden in front of the house. The only thing that helped to control these animals was a tightly set wooden fence around the house.

The cultural history of the fence in the Bregenzerwald has not received the attention that it deserves. Whole hamlets, small settlements with a few houses, feuded with one another time and again when animals managed to break out of their confinement and eat something forbidden on the other side, where, of course, the grass was always greener. Such discord between neighbours could sometimes be so great that the area’s most powerful judge, the “Landammann” of the Bregenzerwald, had to settle the dispute with his verdict. In terms of protection, today’s fences made of wooden poles are nothing compared to what they once were in the past.

Today, these fences are more of a cultural asset, which is an important concern for the house and property owner Jochen Matt in Schoppernau. After last winter, his fence is in need of repair. It was damaged by the masses of snow. The border fence between his home estate and the “cattle street” is approx. 33 metres long. To get the job done, Helmut Fink has loaded about 170 fence poles onto his trailer. He plans to place a pole every 15-20 cm and if all goes well, it should be goat-proof. Helmut Fink is a wood craftsman and a passionate Alpine pasture farmer. If there’s anyone who knows his fences, it’s Helmut. In no time, the poles are set and anchored in the ground with the wooden sledgehammer. Fink says: “The best poles are made from spruce branches. They are sourced from trees that grow on the edge of the forest because such branches grow pretty straight.” Farmers supply him with the wood and Hubert Kaufmann fashions the branches for him. They are stripped of their bark, sharpened at the thinner end, and rounded off at the top. “This practice reduces the surface area when striking with the sledgehammer,” Fink explains. “The smaller area is better able to absorb the force of the blow from the sledgehammer without splintering.”

Fink now begins to lay the pickets for the fence on the ground. As people stroll by, some stop to watch the fence builder and to exchange a few words with him. They share anecdotes and jokes. When attaching the pickets, Fink constantly twists and turns them to find the best fit. An older man among the observers, who has apparently grown impatient waiting for a hammer blow, grumbles, “It won’t get easier the longer you stare at it.” The group laughs. Helmut Fink sets the nail, grabs the hammer and strikes. “A tough one,” he mutters to himself. The nail doesn’t seem to want to go into the wood. Two more heavy blows and the nail is curled into place. Laughing to himself, he continues his work, immune to the stares and grunts of the onlookers who watch his every move. Then everything goes in a flash: The pickets are quickly nailed into place. Afterwards, house owner Matt and the craftsman Fink admire the project from a distance. They are satisfied with the work. Fink puts away his tools and says, “shouldn’t give you any trouble now for a few years at least!” At least not from the goats.

Author: Georg Sutterlüty
Issue: Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine – Summer 2022