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Horse Power: Ardennes heavy horses replace machinery in forestry

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Discover two forestry workers abandoning machinery in favour of a more traditional - and eco-friendly - means of labour. Meet Ardennes heavy horses, Jetson and Tser

Fifty years ago more than half of forestry work depended on heavy horses, yet just 25 years later only a handful of these operators remained.

Yet today the practice has made something of a comeback, thanks to the dedication of those who used horses for forestry work during the 1980s and 1990s. In recent years demand for it has started to increase, as the impacts of machinery on the natural environment have become an issue of growing concern.

Someone who has been involved in the revival of heavy horses for forestry work is Frankie Woodgate, who uses her two Ardennes horses, Jeton and Yser, to extract wood and manage forests in the South of England. “The vital role horses play in timber extraction is now being recognised within the woodland and forestry sector,” she explains. “It is an environmentally sensitive management technique that offers woodland managers and owners a viable, low impact, method of timber extraction.”

Much of her work is extracting wood, but she also offers a range of services through her company, Sylvan Environmental Services, which she runs with her husband, Graham.

A major advantage of using horses in place of machinery is manoeuvrability, and in particular, the fact they can turn in tighter circles.

This means swathes of trees do not need to be cut down unnecessarily to provide turning areas for vehicles, and individual trees can be reached and worked on without having to create machinery ‘routes’. As a result the quality of work can be better, as there is no unnecessary damage. “In the worst case scenario, machinery can compromise the ecology and productivity of a woodland and its tree crop,” she says.

Frankie stresses that she is not competing with machinery – she recognises that there is a place for both in the 21st Century – but she adds that when a site is up to three hectares in size, horses are often cheaper to use. This is because there are no fuel costs, or any cost involved in repairing the damage caused by large, heavy machinery.

The 40-year-old started her career 13 years ago, after researching horse-drawn logging as part of her degree in countryside management. With her love of horses and particular interest in ancient forests, she studied methods used in Sweden and Finland where horse-drawn wood management is still common.

During this time, Frankie also learned about the type of horse she would need, and the characteristics that would make an animal suitable for the job she intended to do. This led her to choose the Ardennes breed, which she calls the ‘prop forwards’ of the heavy-horse world.

Believed to be one of the oldest draft horse breeds, it originates from the Ardennes area of Belgium, Luxembourg and France.

It is believed to be a direct descendent of the Solutrian, which roamed the basins of the Rhone, Soane and Meuse during the Palaeolithic Period, and remains similar to its ancestor that lived in the Ice Age 15,000 years ago.

The horse has a broad, muscular conformation with deep chest and short back that makes it ideal for draft work. Standing between 14hh and 16hh, it also has huge bones below the knees and extremely strong muscles, allowing it to drag large amounts of weight.

“It is extremely well suited to the work we do as it is strong and versatile animal,” adds Frankie.

“Its low centre of gravity allows a shallow draft angle which is more efficient when pulling heavy loads.”


Special breeds

Other heavy horse such as the Clydesdale, Shire horse and native breeds like the Highland Pony are also extremely good to use.

But it’s not what the horse does but the way that it does it, explains Frankie. “No one breed is better than the other, it’s down to the individual horse. It has to be intelligent enough to understand what it needs to do and form a good working bond with its handler, who ensures it will not injure itself.”

Forestry work uses a range of equipment, such as a draft bar – traces and chains attached to the horse’s harness used to drag wood – and forwarder, a six wheel wagon with small crane used to lift and carry heavy tree trunks.
On average, Jeton and Yser work six hours a day and their welfare is paramount. Frankie ensures the animals are never overworked, and spends two to three hours a day feeding and caring for them.

Both horses are fed on a mix of alfalfa, corn oil and hard feed when they are pulling longer distances, and even with veterinary bills and cost of hoof care – such as shoeing and trimming – when conditions dictate, Frankie says the animals are ‘amazingly frugal’ to look after.

Yet in the UK there has been a lack of Government initiatives and foresight that could support breeders of heavy horses for work – and therefore the very future of these hardworking animals.

As someone who is now looking to purchase another horse to work alongside Jeton and Yser, Frankie is now having to look in Scandinavia and Belgium, where Government-backed programmes exist to preserve heavy horse breeds.

As this is not the case in the UK, a number of heavy horse breeds have plummeted to almost critical point.  One example is the Suffolk Punch, which is now critically endangered despite being a familiar sight on farms across the UK in years gone by.
If other breeds are going to be prevented from going the same way, Frankie warns, Government action needs to be taken to support those trying to protect them. Only by doing this will they be available for those who want to use them in the future.

“A conversation needs to take place in this country about breeding horses for work, and training individuals to work them,” says Frankie. “If we do not do something to ensure the future of heavy breeds in the UK, which will be needed for the sustainable management of our land in the future, we will roo the day.”

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