A bright future in furze

An Irishman’s Diary: Could gorse stave off a further fodder crisis?

‘Furze was widely used for feeding animals in the 18th and 19th century Ireland and doubtless long before this and was widely cultivated to this end across the course of the country’.

‘Furze was widely used for feeding animals in the 18th and 19th century Ireland and doubtless long before this and was widely cultivated to this end across the course of the country’.


Irish farmers may be neglecting a very rich source of feed for their cattle as they anxiously await grass growth and more fine weather to harvest their hay and silage for the coming winter.

While grass has been very scarce this year, the countryside has been ablaze with flowering furze which for centuries was a very rich source of winter feed for cattle, horses and other livestock on Irish farms.

Furze, known as “whin” in the North and “gorse” along the east coast, was at onetime an important forage plant either in the wild or as a managed crop and had an amazing wide range of uses not that long ago

According to John Feehan, who worked at University College Dublin’s faculty of agriculture, furze was such an important crop it was specifically registered in legal documents in the 15th and 16th centuries as an asset on farms.

Writing in his book, Farming in Ireland, he noted that apart from providing wood for fires, fencing and being used for medicinal purposes, it was primarily used as fodder for animals.

“In earlier times the young shoots of furze were highly valued for the winter feeding of animals – it is after all in the same plant family as peas, beans, lucerne and clovers – especially in more marginal areas where fodder was scarce but furze grew prolifically.

“It was especially valued in feeding horses, though cattle throve on it also, either fed on its own or as part of a mixed diet,” he wrote.

“Furze was widely used for feeding animals in the 18th and 19th century Ireland and doubtless long before this and was widely cultivated to this end across the course of the country, with sporadic occurrences elsewhere,” he pointed out.

He recorded instances of furze being planted as a fodder crop in Wexford in the late 1830s and in Cork and Waterford back as far as the 1680s. “In the Mallow district, nearly every farmer owned an acre or two of what was termed ‘furze meadow’.”

“Some of the claims made for furze were little short of astonishing,” he wrote, recounting how one Cork farmer sowed a very poor field of four acres with furze in the winter of 1837 and was convinced it was more nutritious than hay. He recorded that the crop was harvested annually or biennially yielding eight to 14 tons per acre of “good succulent provender” when it was cut every year and 12-24 tons were cut every other year.

It was cut with a scythe or sickle and a day’s supply for 30 head of cattle could be cut in an hour.

He stated that the Wexford farmer, Sandham Elly had reported that “20 statute acres of gorse should support 100 head of cattle for the winter six months without other food save the morning feed of mangold wurzel turnips or potatoes.

“The saving of hay for 100 cows would be at least £200 per annum, enabling the small farmer to feed eight milch cows off the same space of ground that supported only one by grazing.”

The publication lists many instances of the use of furze for cattle feed and the methods used to feed the animals.

The use of furze as a fodder crop was mentioned by Irish Times reader Dermot Carberry, from Straffan, Co Kildare, who pointed out in his letter to the editor on June 4th last that the furze bush could not only provide fodder but help wildlife as well. He suggested furze should be planted on cutaway bog and other non-productive land and being an early blooming plant, would be a saviour to our bee population, helping it to return to strength.

While many farmers managed to get good crops of hay and haylage in the recent good spell of weather, Teagasc, the farm advisory organisation, has estimated there will be a shortage of winter fodder in 2014.

While the fine weather helped save large amounts of great hay this year, the warm dry spell meant grass growth was very slow and it will take a good deal of rain to ensure proper amounts of aftergrass for late silage cuts.

But through the good and the bad weather, the furze bushes have been blooming like most of us have never seen before. On the hillsides, the sun has been helping them spit out their seedlings from the flower pods to spread the crop.

It is said you should always look back to guide you where you are planning to go, so it is possible we will see farmers begin to harvest the humble furze again in coming years.

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