Eco-echo from the past makes a comeback

 

ANOTHER LIFE:  The massively-built draught horses of the Ardennes pulled Napoleon's heavy wagons in retreat through deep Russian snow, writes Michael Viney.

At Athenry, Co Galway, the other day, spectators were scarcely less impressed to watch an Ardennes mare hauling heavy timber with a slow but measured tread along a narrow track no machine could have followed.

It was meant as a colourful crowd-puller at "Farmfest", Teagasc's big day out at the Athenry Agricultural College. For Ireland's only commercial horselogger, Tom Nixon, however, the show of professional skill and horse sense also won half-a-dozen new contracts on the spot.

Timber extraction by horsepower, often over difficult and delicate terrain, increasingly finds a niche in all manner of woodland and forest where the need is for selective and eco-gentle felling rather than rapid, machine-powered, diesel-thirsty clearfell. In the UK it even commands its own contractors' association (www.britishhorseloggers.org).

Like the equine events at the National Ploughing Championships, such demonstrations of what a draught horse can do, powered by home-grown grass and cereals, is beginning to ring quite a few sensible bells. Urged on by the French National Stud, for example, more than 70 French towns of up to 100,000 people have already replaced garbage and recycling trucks and school buses with horse-drawn carts and carriages.

Moving heavy loads with frequent starts and stops is what patient horses might have been designed for. My memory of hearing the milkman delivering in wartime England, and dashing out with the shovel to scoop up a donation to the family allotment may prompt some critical reflections on the state of horse-powered city streets. On the land, however, such natural recycling is just one more benefit from an animal that, unlike the tractor, will even reproduce itself for a small fee. During its long working life, about one-third of the energy a cart-horse consumes as food will be returned as manure, while two-thirds of the energy a tractor "eats" is lost as heat and exhaust fumes.

The logistics and economics of even a partial return to the horse are taking on new interest and relevance as oil passes 140 dollars and space-hungry plant alternatives, such as oilseed rape, begin to show a downside. Before his widely-lamented death last autumn, the English authority on heavy-horse farming, Charlie Pinney, contributed a chapter to Before The Wells Run Dry, a compendium on Ireland's transition to renewable energy, published by Feasta, the groundbreaking, independent Irish think-tank.

At the time, Pinney had no illusions as to how his case would be received. "To invite our highly mechanised western world to seriously contemplate using a wilful, feeble, mortal device in need of constant care and attention, one who is subject to as many fits, sulks and diseases as its handler, and moreover one which can kick, bite or merely tread heavily on you, when press-button tractor technology is freely available, might appear to be a mere flight of fancy." Of Britain's million or so horses, perhaps 2 per cent do any "manual" work in farming, forestry or horticulture. In Romania, about the same number of draught horses still serve a small-farm rural economy. In Ireland, the draught horse feeds its best genes ­ for "even temperament, athleticism and durability" ­ into the breeding of showjumpers.

What would be the picture in Ireland if agriculture was to take many of them back into employment? Charlie Pinney attempted an approximate area of land that might be needed for their feed, but one based on old horse-per-hectare ratios on mixed farms, ignoring the extra productivity from modern horse machinery. When farm horse numbers were at their highest, the ratio was about one pair per 10 hectares (the old 25-acre farm), increasing by one horse for each extra 10 hectares.

"Each horse needs around 0.89ha for maintenance. Thus, taking the Republic's good quality grassland and arable area as 3.9 million hectares, we have 97,500 farms of 40ha, on which 487,000 cart horses are trundling around, ploughing, harvesting, carting things, and so on. These horses will need 433,875ha for their fodder requirements, or 11.12 per cent of the total hectares." This, of course, says nothing of the manpower and rethinking of operations that horse-powered farming would need. Hanging over my study door is a rather heavy, not specially ornamental, horsebit - all that remains of the tackle we once assembled from the cobwebby corners of barns, in the hope of harnessing a small cart to Bainin, our daughter's Connemara pony, to bring up seaweed from the strand.

Collar and hames, swingletree and chains, ridge-pad, britcher and hooks: the whole elaborate outfit. We tried a few times to back him between the shafts before my nerve broke and we called the whole thing off.

Between buying a horse (especially a heavy horse) and acquiring the skills to make it a working partner is a learning curve that few will rush to climb.

EYE ON NATURE

On the beach at Bunow Harbour I saw a black duck-sized bird swim to the strand at high tide. He had a long, thin beak and black body, and stood like a penguin, displaying a beautiful white front.

Margaret O'Shanahan, Limerick

It was a guillemot.

While fishing in Bundoran, two otters appeared in the water, calling in a piercing cry and playing. I tossed them a mackerel and it was seized immediately. They returned when I was cleaning my catch and ate the guts. On a sadder note, a friend recently set a lobster pot on the north Sligo coast, baiting it with a seatrout head. He checked it each morning but caught nothing, and on the third day was dismayed to find a drowned otter in his pot.

Eamon Murphy, Ballyshannon, Co Donegal

The playing otters were probably a mother teaching her cub to fish.

I came across a dead pine marten on the road a couple of kilometres east of Johnstown Bridge. Have they been encountered any closer to Dublin than this?

Justin May, Castletown, Co Kildare

Pine martens have been reported in Kildare and Wicklow, and may well have even entered the capital by now.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo; e-mail: viney@anu.ie