It is a hot day in the UK – a scarce event in the summer of 2015! So I find myself inside, ignoring the nice weather, when I am saved by my phone ringing. Picking it up I hear the musical west country voice of my neighbour Paul inviting me and my family up to one of the fields to watch some early harvesting of the wheat. My neighbour is a hard-working farmer, as were his forebears, as is his son, and grandsons. But I have seen the life of the farm change dramatically. Once cattle roamed the fields but they are gone now, replaced by grain crops and ever more solar panels.
It looks like the countryside is changing fast with fields grow deserts of rapeseed oil, solar arrays cling to hills as if a child had covered the landscape in tin foil and with a strong under-swell of development and construction. As much as I am in favour of renewable energies, I sometimes question the sacrificing of green land for them, particularly when large roof spaces lay empty on industrial sites.
Since 1800, England has lost around 500 different species, mostly due to changes in the countryside leading to habitat loss. The majority of the loss is from our insect population, with a quarter being made up of native butterflies and moths. It’s not just the wild species we are losing, but also breeds of working animals. The reasons for the changes come from unbalanced assessments, with undue emphasis given to a specific product or trait, changing technology, the outbreak of diseases, indiscriminate cross-breeding and little market appetite to utilise the ‘old breeds’. It is this last point that I would like you to remember.
Our diverse natural heritage includes myriad animals, plants and fungi. These species provide us with food and livelihoods; they help form the distinctive English landscapes and seascapes that we love; they have inspired and delighted through generations. They are England’s life. This life is being lost. Although changes in species populations are a natural consequence of environmental change, recent technological advances have led to humans altering species’ habitats in ways and at rates that make it impossible for them to adapt.
-Lost life: England’s lost and threatened species. Natural England
With all this change and modernisation, one wonders why coming to watch the wheat being harvested by a large GPS driven combine harvester should warrant a phone call. That is because this day, it is not a going to be one of these great moving towns-on-wheels harvesting the top lane field. My neighbour, though embracing renewable energies, also prefers the old traditional machinery. Not long ago, last year, he bought a wagon that originally would have been pulled by a draught horse, which was later converted to be pulled by a tractor. He also has a 1930’s tractor that he is very proud of. With a Country Steam Fair coming up, it was time to blow off the cobwebs and get the machines going. He was also playing host to some shire horses and some of the original equipment in such wonderful condition that it looked to have been brand new off the factory line yesterday. The Steam Fair aimed to show off the threshing machines that would have been used to separate grain from stalk. Around ten days before the Fair, the wheat must be cut and bound, and this was what was the job we were doing today.
Three Shire horses stand in the sun, their black coats like velvet. They have been brought down to be hitched up to a combine machine, to follow after the tractor with the cutting blades. The young filly is in training, she will be put on the side of the horse hitch with less equipment on, to get a feel of the machine, next to the two more experienced animals. This are only the first two steps of a five step process that would have taken a mechanised combine harvester just a minute or so.
So why care about these breeds that our ancestors have bred for specific tasks, why care about an old way of life?
We lose unique combinations of traits that are suitable for different environments, allowing less accessible land to be cultivated or managed, contributing to the adaptation of better production or productivity. Many breeds are also linked to culture and the identity of an area. The highlands of Scotland are hard to imagine without the long shaggy ginger faces of highland cattle.
Whats the future?
I ask you now to recall the small market appetite to utilise ’old breeds’. Though there may be little requirement for old breeds in their traditional use, they are, however, increasingly finding work in conservation. In the effort to save species, habitat must also be saved, after all what is the point of preserving a species that will have no home? In saving a habitat you save more than just your target species, many hundreds of other species have also evolved to exist in that particular habitat.
It is widely recognised that a good grazing regime is essential for wildlife management in conservation areas. The use of grazing animals improves the biodiversity of an area by limiting succession of an environment at different phases, allowing a variety of habitats to thrive. Some plant species depend on grazing to keep more competitive plants down, thereby encouraging a greater diversity of insect life, supporting the food chain of birds and the mammals above them. Traditional breeds are often far more suitable for this work than modern commercial breeds. Areas that need this form of grazing are often in more exposed locations such as highlands, islands, moorlands and coastal verges where commercial breeds could not exist.
Highland cows for example, are now often used to graze back heath-land where bracken or gorse may have overtaken. They are able to consume a wide range of vegetation that other cattle would find hard to digest. They are happy to be out in all weather, require less management, and their lighter frame means they cause less soil damage. Some herds have been used to help ”scrub bash”- helping machinery to clear thick scrub and undergrowth, with their long powerful horns. These cleared areas then allow for smaller more delicate plants to grow up. Here too, the cattle can be used to unwanted plants and invasive grasses.
Traditional breeds of horses too are proving their uses. Probably the most well-recognised icon of the Heavy breeds is the Clydesdale – thanks to an odd partnership with the brewer Budweiser (though the commercials are not often seen outside the USA). This beer Company has helped re-establish a breed whose numbers fell to barely 80 stallions in England in 1949. The downturn in the breed’s fortunes came after the two World Wars, along with many other of these now rare breeds. Mechanization of the farms caused the heavy horses to become redundant after the 1st World War. Mechanization became even more intense during the second war, when the demand for greatest productivity forced farmers to use the most cost, time and man-power efficient methods. Many horses (both heavy and standard) were shipped off to mainland Europe to work pulling guns and wagons in both first and second World Wars, many did not return. By 1975, the Clydesdale was categorized as ‘vulnerable’ by the Rare Breed Survival Trust, and it still remains on the ‘at risk’ list today.
However in the USA, the Clydesdale story is somewhat different. They were first introduced to the public on April 7, 1933, to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition. August A. Busch, Jr. presented the hitch (one or more horses pulling a non-powered wheeled vehicle) to his father as a gift. The hitch proceeded to carry the first case of post-Prohibition beer along the streets of St. Louis. The stunt proved such a success that Busch utilised a similar hitch in New York City. They followed their successes with a number of other tours that cemented the iconic image of the Clydesdale’s and the Brewers in the mind of the public. Eight horses pull every red white and gold wagon hitch that tours the road each year – A success story for the breed.
So, what of the shires that I see on my neighbour’s farm on a hill in England? They are pulling the combining machine, scooping up cut wheat and spitting out bound up bundles of wheat with gusto. Shires are one of the UK’s larger draught horses, standing over 17.2hh in height, with a mature stallion weighing almost one tonne. Their large silky ‘feathers’ (the hair of the lower legs) blow in the wind. Their stocky build and great strength, makes them perfect for pulling large weights with little effort. More and more, they are coming back into fashion for their traditional work in the fields, though on a small scale and often for entertainment than practicality. Some animals are used for weddings and other events. For work, however they are seeing requests from the environmental sector, pulling threshing machines to remove bracken and brambles, or towing logs – a process known as ‘Snigging’.
The advantages of using the horses and not machinery are numerous.
- Horses can work alongside the machines that not so long ago replaced them. Aiding work.
- Horses can access places much more easily than many machines, such as slopes.
- The use of machines particularly in logging can mean excess trees are cut down to make a path for the removed trees, using horses means that only the selected trees for removal need to be cut.
- Habitat may benefit from re-introducing traditional land management practices, such as cutting hay in regenerating wildflower meadows.
- Lower noise disturbance to wildlife in the area
- Lower soil compaction and damage than the use of machines
- Lower carbon footprint
- More iconic, so can be good promotional presence for the local community to understand conservation issues.
So what is the future for the three shires that worked on my neighbour’s farm in the summer sun? Conservation is certainly bringing new work to these iconic breeds, be it horses, sheep or cattle. Many animals also act as ambassadors for their breeds, helping to preserve their roles in the public mind.
I leave you with a few more photos of these majestic animals. After all, who would not want to work with them? These animals are kept going by a few dedicated people and organisations.But if they didn’t and these breed became extinct-