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Amuse Bouche: The devil’s rope

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By Scott Mechura EBS COLUMNIST

In August of 2017, I wrote a column on what’s called ghost fishing. This is when fish and marine life get caught, often times fatally, in old or abandoned fishing lines or nets.

A similar fate awaits land creatures.

It’s been observed that historically these lines, traps, cages and nets weren’t accidentally lost, but rather carelessly cut, broken or left behind with no intention of retrieving them.

Lucien Smith invented the first single-strand version of thorny wire—or what we now know as barbed wire—in 1867. A full patent by Joseph Glidden in 1873 gave us the twisted, double-cable wire we know today. 

Old barbed wire, rusty and hanging off an old, weathered wooden fence post, is an image we have come to almost affectionately associate with rural America and the old West. 

At a former club I was the executive chef at in Texas, I even used it for decoration. The perimeter of the property had yards of old, abandoned rusty barbed wire. I snipped 2-3-foot sections and stray coated them to keep them from rubbing rust off. I then wrapped them around mason jars with a votive inside for a hip, Texas ranch feel in the dining room of the Great House.

But ghost wire, or broken or abandoned barbed wire, is not as benign as it may appear when repurposed on the dining room table. In fact, it’s more of an issue than most people realize.

Ranchers are busy, and often times dealing with old broken fencing or disposing of a section that should be cut off just doesn’t figure into their day. But it should.

Sometimes they may coil it up, thinking they’re at least doing some good, and cast it aside. But this makes for a circular flesh-cutting trap for either their own livestock down the road or wildlife.

And if wildlife manage to escape the snaps of ghost wire, they may end up contracting tetanus and die a slow, painful death. 

Broken pieces of barbed wire have been known to be ingested by feeding cattle. Their complex, multiple-stomach system allows this piece of metal to sit, relatively harmless, but slowly putting toxins into the immune system and blood stream of an animal. Often, by the time a rancher discovers the cow is sick, and why they’re sick, it’s usually fatal.

Broken or loose barbed wire can easily become covered by brush and undergrowth. This acts like a trap for anything from deer, coyotes, wolves and foxes, to nocturnal animals who don’t see it until they become entangled, a scenario in which they rarely survive. Even owls have been known to fly into this ghost wire in the dark of night, also ending tragically.

Cows, sheep and goats will inevitably wander into ghost wire on a ranch and become entangled. And either they free themselves and risk infection from cuts not always noticed by a ranch hand, or they remain entangled and only compound the issue as they struggle.

But worse than the aforementioned livestock are horses.

Cows, sheep and goats all instinctively tend to stop and back up when they encounter danger. But horses panic easily. This causes them to thrash, kick and jump, only making a bad situation much, much worse very quickly.

Just as ghost nets in the ocean must be managed, so must old, broken barbed wire, particularly in remote areas.

Though a symbol of success for the American ranch, ghost wire can haunt for years to come.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry as well as a former certified beer judge.

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