STARTING PEN DESIGN
A large number of Beaglers in recent years have decided to build their own training (also called running pens) and/or starting pens. In keeping with the past articles I've written, this series will deal with designing and building a starting pen, including my "lessons learned" through trial and error approaches.
Decide What You Need First
Besides the amount of room your have, the primary decision you need to make is "what do you really want." Do you want a pen where you can:
Keeping yourself focused on your ultimate need will determine what approach will be best when other factors are considered.
The Pros and Cons
Not only are there inter-relationships between the various options, but for each option there are serious pros and cons. Let's discuss a few examples.
Let's pick the most common need. Say you want a personal pen where you can start your own pups, work an occasional older dog or two under supervision, and/or show a dog or two to your friends once in awhile. You have five acres, live in an area with no snakes, and only a few large trees grow on your place. You don't have a lot to spend, your winters are mild, you can catch a couple of rabbits for the pen, and you don't have a lot of time to spend putting up a pen.
Mild winters, a low budget and little time equate directly to a short term low cost but higher maintenance pen. In this case, I suggest a 5 foot 1 inch mesh galvanized chicken wire fence. It's easy to install, will last three to four years, can be fixed easily when trees fall on it, a deer tears it down, or when places rust through. Use light metal 6 foot stakes and wire loops to connect the wire to the stakes, pounding them in about one foot down and then folding the bottom of the wire out to make a 6 inch apron. If you have more funding, use commercially available starting pen wire with attached aprons for your fencing. Some people use chain link for long term fencing. I use chain link for my gates.
Puppies and unstarted hounds can be worked in an enclosure as small as 1/4 acre. You don't need much cover, just a pile of thick brush or old logs in the middle and room to run around on the outside. You will need both feeders and a water source.
For the older hounds to be worked under control you need at least two acres minimum with plenty of cover. Cover is not going to be easy unless you can plant high growing grass or cover and you can keep it from falling down during the winter. You will likely need a pond or other water source, plus you will probably need a feeder.
If you don't want to work your hounds under control, you will need at least 3-4 acres, plus you really need to bring in some heavy cover so the rabbits can get away from the hounds when they are tired. You can't maintain too many rabbits in this size a pen unless you also farm your rabbits. In other words, provide feed, water and good cover, plus keep hounds out of the pen when you have small rabbits around.
Based on the needs for this pen, I suggest a 3 acre enclosure with a small concrete pool near the middle, two feeders equally spaced, some larger brush piles made from a couple of trees cut down, several thick brush patches around the perimeter such as those composed of blackberry vines, and a physical location close to where your kennels are located.
For another example, let's say you have the same needs as above but live in a wooded area with bad winters and plenty of owls. Owls can't be eliminated and they eat plenty of rabbits. You also may have a legal restriction on cutting down all your trees. This means that you can only have a wooded pen where you continually add new rabbits and that focuses on providing plenty of cover and similar hiding places. This is similar to what I endure.
Here you face a dilemma. Ground cover won't grow easily without sunlight. To get sunlight without having forestry problems, you need to thin your trees out based on what is allowed in your area. In my case, the forestry service gave me information on desirable trees in my area and those that could be removed. The removable trees were the first to go. However, through natural destruction such as storms and bad winters, several more of the trees have fallen on their own. Additionally, I keep newly sprouted trees from gaining a foothold, thus ensuring at least some undergrowth comes up every year.
For the common need in a wooded area, 3-4 acres will not ensure a continuous rabbit population regardless of your cover, water source and feeding locations. I suggest at least 5 acres for any pen where you work all age hounds. Hounds, particularly unsupervised hounds, will catch rabbits in the fall and winter months when the cover is down and the rabbits don't have a lot of room to run.
If you want to go into the starting business, you need to consider several things that would otherwise not be a problem. Assuming you don't have a problem maintaining a commercial kennel, you must rabbit farm outside your enclosure, provide plenty of thick cover inside your pen, maintain good hygiene such as bleached pens and sulfur on your grounds and enforce requirements for shots and de-worming before you accept outside hounds. You will also need to use heavy gauge 6 foot fencing to prevent escape artists form eating through your wire or crawling out.
A couple of my other pet peeves are outside hounds that bark continuously in the kennel, hounds that won't lead, and hounds that absolutely won't be caught due to shyness or hard headedness. You really need to have these hounds go elsewhere or they will require much more work that you will likely be interested to provide.
Despite the cover you offer, there will always be snakes and other predators trying to get at your rabbits. If you live near foxes, they will jump up to a 5 foot fence with ease. To keep them out you need a fence charger and charged wire extending the entire length of your enclosure. My enclosure is too far from a power source, so I rely on battery power. Solar powered chargers are readily available as are traditional powered chargers.
There is a second problem with snakes. They can crawl through small holes in your fence, and will make a habit of living under your brush piles during the summer months unless seriously kept out. If you have a snake problem, I suggest putting a ¼ inch mesh wire liner at least two feet high entirely around your fence, plus spend a lot of time mowing your paths in the summer months to catch the few snakes that still will make it into the pen.
Owls and hawks will still be a problem but it can be dealt with at some level. Contact your local game warden and let them know you have owls or hawks causing a problem with your rabbit farming. They often supply a trap that can help you to catch and relocate the pesky birds. Also, your fencing and fence posts will have an effect on the owls who raid your pen. If you want a strong fence with heavy 4"x4" posts, you are going to have an owl problem. I've been forced to use regular metal fence stakes so there will be fewer places for the owls to perch on. Fewer good watching posts mean more protection for your rabbits.
Running at Night
I work during the day and can't get home early enough to work hounds before dark during the winter months. I'm careful to keep the snake problem under control in my pen, and having lights to train under has been a real pleasure for me. Adding a couple of ordinary flood lights to higher polls or trees in your pen is a great idea. I've got two lights, one located near my adjacent kennels facing my pen, and one a little further out, that provide plenty of light to see by. It's a good idea to use a weatherproof 100 ft extension cord from your outdoor outlet suspended well off the ground to provide power. I had an outside switch to turn on my lights at first, but this wore out in the weather very quickly. I found it best to simply plug the extension in whenever I need the lights turned on outside.
One word about snakes, we have copper heads in this area as well as water moccasins. Copperheads like to lay out in the grass at night and are easily stepped on. Water moccasins like to come up out of the creek bottoms when there is a storm. In either case, you need to be wary if they can get into your pen. Several of my friends down in Florida and parts of the south maintain high snake proof fences all along their pens plus only have high grass for cover. Go this route if snakes are a problem.
In Part 2 of this installment I will address some of the design and layout challenges faced in building a good starting pen.
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