Heavy Horses: Peak Oil

The 1960s and 1970s saw a surge of interest in heavy horse breeds just as the animals were vanishing on British farmland, replaced by the tractor and the truck. People began to start working with horses again, keen to “preserve the old ways”, and heavy horse visitor centres sprung up where tourists and locals could watch Shires, Punches, Percherons and Clydesdales being put through their paces.
In 1979 George Ewart Evans published an oral history called Horse Power and Magic, drawn from a series of interviews with horsemen and women working with draft breeds. The various oil crises of the 1970s gave his interviewees much food for thought, and, with peak oil either looming close or well behind us, depending on the expert you consult, I’m very glad that Faber have (hurrah!) added this wonderful book to their print on demand list, Faber Finds.

Harry Burroughes (born 1908) was a farmer living at Chediston Grange near Halesworth in Suffolk, where he was keeping five Suffolk Punch geldings to keep him entertained in his retirement. He told Ewart Evans:

“I believe there’s a chance of the horse coming back in some degree. I don’t say that it will come back – not to regularly plough in the field, but there’s a chance it might come back  around the farm, marginally. Talking to – I was talking to some young farmers when the petrol scare was on. They said:

‘Well, of course, you couldn’t do it with horses now. You couldn’t get through the work.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘if the oil dried up it won’t be a case perhaps of you couldn’t do it, you’d have to do it. It would perhaps  be going right back not only to ploughing with horses but to ploughing with bullocks. For without the oil what would you do?’

I sometimes think that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if there was some sort of grant just to kee the horse as a stand-by because you never know how the job is going to work out.”

He goes on to point out the useful qualities of horse manure, which is far better for soil than exhaust fumes.
Roger Clark, a horseman nearly forty years younger who worked Suffolk Punches with his wife Cheryl, told Ewart Evans about another advantage:

“An interesting thing happened just at the back here. I wanted to practice ploughing for a ploughing match. Well, we’re on an estate here [Weyland’s Farm]: and they are very good: I’ve only got to ring up a man and say: “Can I do a bit of ploughing in such and such a place?” and I can carry on. Well, there’s a piece on this corner, about three-quarters of an acre and it’s very wet. I ploughed that with horses, not very deep on the stretch [a section of ploughed lane] – made narrow stretches of it, and finished it to the end. Later the tractors came along and started ploughing where I finished. Then they pulled that field down and drilled it; and when the corn was so high [about six inches] and you looked at it from the road, the bit that was ploughed with horses was far greener and denser and taller, and looked a lot better than the piece that had been done by tractor. You could see where the horses finished and the tractor started.”

The tractors compacted the soil despite ploughing it while the horses had left it aerated. Clark goes on to say that horses are more efficient for general jobs around the farm, like carting fodder for livestock – “one man can do it with a horse where you want two with a tractor.”

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