Save Money on Rubbish Collection – with Horses

From Anthony Dent’s Donkey: The Story of the Ass From East to West. Dent was born in 1915 in North Yorkshire, just to orient you.

‘When I was a child in a small coastal resort in the North-east the most senior employees of our local council were two old men and a donkey, who between them operated a miniature dust-cart. They did not empty the bins behind the houses, but patrolled the streets, front and back, sweeping up casual rubbish and carting it away. … the old boys and their moke [slang for donkey] were still doing a fair amount of business right through the nineteen-twenties, and in a sense they distributed the lesser fleas which great fleas had on their backs to bite ’em: because the last really coprogenic horses to ply our streets, surviving the ice-cream float and the pony-drawn milk-cart and the fish-trolleys (driven by blue-bonneted ladies from the neighbouring fishing villages at a furious pace, to the accompaniment of eldritch shrieks of ” ‘Erreen, fresh ‘erreen-a-a-a” or “Feesh, feesh, feeeesh!”) by many years, were the mountainous Clydesdale geldings – also the property of the Health Department – which emptied the bins of household refuse.’

It might sound merely quaint, but recent pilot schemes in Europe have put a twenty-first century twist on the refuse horse. They’re using national heavy-horse breeds from state studs and donkeys to collect recycling. A Guardian report on some local European schemes spells it out goes into detail:

For Jean Baptiste, mayor of medieval Peyrestortes, near Perpignan and one of 60 towns now using horses to collect waste, the benefit above all is practical. “You can’t turn a waste collection vehicle around here. We used to block streets to traffic and keep waste in open skips.” He sold off a dustbin lorry and acquired two Breton carthorses instead. Asked whether the changes are saving money, he says: “It’s too early. But money isn’t the only reason. The exhaust smells have gone, the noise has gone, and instead we have the clip-clop of horses’ hooves.”

In Saint Prix, however, in Greater Paris, Mayor Jean-Pierre Enjalbert is certain he is saving money as the novelty of the horses has increased recycling rates. “By using the horse for garden waste collection, we have raised awareness. People are composting more. Incineration used to cost us €107 a tonne, ridiculous for burning wet matter, now we only pay €37 to collect and compost the waste.”

Well-established horse-drawn collections also succeed in Trouville, and in Vendargues near Montpellier, but many ventures last only a few months. Sita, France’s second biggest waste management and recycling company, has now integrated the “collecte hippomobile” into three refuse collection circuits in the Aube département in central France.

Sita’s Alexandre Champion, who instigated the idea, points to several factors behind the failed ventures: unsuitable horses, untrained workers or inadequate terrain, poor equipment. Housing estates or old town centres with flat terrain work best, with a circuit of under 20 km a day, he says. But even terrain problems can be overcome, and this autumn Sita starts horse-drawn collection in hilly Verdun, with a pair of strong carthorses. …

In Sicily, another place bringing back four-hoofed transport, Mario Cicero, mayor of 14th-century town Castelbuono, disagrees. He pioneered glass and cardboard collection using two packsaddle donkeys in 2007. Three years on, Cicero has done his sums and calculated a cost saving of 34%, as well as winning over a sceptical population and putting more donkeys to work.

“Compared with €5,000–7,000 annual running costs for a diesel truck, an ass costs €1,000–1,500 and can live 25-30 years. A truck costs around €25,000, lasts around five years and can’t reproduce,” says Cicero, whose four asinelli have now produced 25 offspring, so he won’t even be buying any more.

Of traditional British heavy horse breeds, the Suffolk Punch is currently “endangered”, Clydesdales “vulnerable” and Shires “at risk”. Oh, if only that £250,000,000 the government is freeing up for rubbish collection could be spent on a true, Green, British horse-powered refuse revolution…

Heavy Horse Week: Sweet Punch

Suffolk Punches from the Hollesley Bay Colony Farm near Woodbridge in Suffolk. The horses were cared for by inmates at Her Majesty’s Prison Hollesley Bay, until the entire stud was bought  by the Suffolk Punch Trust, who have opened a visitor centre on the site. Although now a rare breed, Punches had an excellent year in 2010, when a record total of fifty purebred foals were registered with the Suffolk Horse Society.

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.”