Soft touch of a shire horse: Working animals are returning to the countryside in growing numbers as landowners rediscover their unique skills, says Nicholas Roe

Click to follow
With delicate grace, a shire horse called Captain picks his way through a spread of Yorkshire woodland, quietly illustrating the growing debt environmentalists owe to animals that work on the land.

The development which plodding Captain represents is both subtle and ironic. After years of relying on technology to control farming and shape the countryside, many landowners are discovering that animals can do things machines cannot.

The result is that horses, dogs, sheep, ponies, and even birds are being pressed into service as countryside guardians in ways that would have brought laughter a few years ago.

Captain weighs almost a ton but has the sweet demeanour of a tea- shop lady. He has one surprising advantage over machines in that he is gentle on the ground.

He has been trained to drag fallen timber from Strid Wood at Bolton Abbey, the Duke of Devonshire's Yorkshire estate near Skipton. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, where the use of tractors is discouraged because of the damage their wheels cause to the wood's intricate, species-rich floor. When Captain walks in, the wood hardly stirs.

John Cumberland, the head forester, bought Captain a year ago from a horse museum. 'This woodland has 98 different species of moss and a similar number of lichen and liverwort,' he says. 'Some species are particular to Yorkshire and even to this wood alone. It is absolutely vital that we keep it in as pristine a condition as possible, yet we have to do a certain amount of thinning or plant life is shaded out.

'The horse doesn't destroy anything near as much as tractors do. Horses have probably less than a two-foot-wide trace, against six to eight feet for the tractor, and horse damage is recoverable in the first season's growth.'

Tractors are used occasionally when loads are too heavy, but most haulage is now Captain's work. He may pull less than a tractor - six to 10 tons a day, barely half the machine's capacity - but he also less expensive. The horse costs about pounds 2,400 a year, including veterinary fees and handler's wages. Depreciation alone on a tractor is pounds 4,500 a year.

The Forestry Commission has used horses in six out of its 39 districts, and many private woodland owners are following its example, either because, as in Strid Wood, the land is too sensitive for wheels, or because the ground is too steep for machines.

The use of horses is expected to increase as woodland sites grow in importance. Meanwhile, horse handlers point to another advantage of using animals on the landscape: you may curse at a motor, but you can talk to Captain.

You can talk to a golden labrador called Goldie, too, and, given the right instructions, this dog will run off to work on the landscape in a way unmatched by any other animal in the country. Goldie has been taught by Hutton and Rostron, the Surrey-based building- decay consultants, to sniff out rot in trees.

Tree decay caused by fungal growth can waste 50 years of investment, a sad fact which becomes clear the moment a tree is cut down, rarely before.

A fairly crude method of spotting 'heart-rot', as it is called, is to bore holes in suspect trees. But Brian Greig, a pathologist with the Forestry Commission, says: 'You may bore into 100 trees to find 20 that are affected. It also causes wounds in the trunk which can themselves lead to decay.'

Goldie sniffs a rotten tree and barks. The dog was originally trained to detect dry rot in buildings. Jagjit Singh, a director of Hutton and Rostron, says that Goldie and two other 'rot- hounds' can whip through a set of rooms in a fraction of the time it takes a trained architect to spot crumbling woodwork.

Following talks with the Forestry Commission, Dr Singh's company trained Goldie to extend his repertoire to fomes annosus, the tree fungus, and it proved an easy switch. Now Dr Singh is waiting to see whether British woodland owners will make the same use of Goldie's nose as Scandinavians do: Sweden has large numbers of sniffer- dogs, trained to pick out rotten telephone poles as well as flawed trees.

In the open landscape, animals are in demand as unwitting environmental architects. On the Lizard, in Cornwall, for example, a herd of ponies is galloping to the rescue of a once-beautiful horizon that has been destroyed by the march of history. According to Nigel Davies, the local head warden for the National Trust, changes in farming practices have ruined many beautiful clifftop areas in the past 60 years.

These craggy regions were once home to thousands of cattle and sheep, which created a stunning environment because grazing encourages plant diversity.

But fertilisers made it possible to fit more animals on to accessible fields rather than those right out on the edge, and the cost of insuring animals on clifftops increased, pricing this marginal landscape out of the reach of most farmers.

Herds disappeared from their teetering pastures, flowers gave way to scrub which was impossibly expensive to mow, and a slice of countryside was effectively closed down.

Mr Davies, who is responsible for clearing these clifftop areas, recalls an odd historical fact: until the 17th century, the Lizard boasted its own indigenous breed of pony, the goonhilly, which ate scrub and thrived before inter- breeding dumped the entire line in nature's out-tray.

Strategic grazing of the cliffs by cattle and sheep 300 years later opened up some areas, but this left many of the more inaccessible patches strewn with tough scrub. Could ponies boldly go where cattle could not?

Mr Davies bought seven shetlands, let them loose on the cliffs - then stood back and watched. 'They really went for it,' he says. 'They ate the gorse, which cattle might have done when it was nice and soft, but not after that. And what they didn't do was eat the Cornish heath - heather which is unique to the Lizard. They turned out to be a really good tool.'

Unlike sheep and cattle, ponies do not need ugly fences to prevent them from trotting over cliff edges. Mr Davies now has 11 ponies and is about to buy three more.

Grazing for the environment has become a finely developed skill in recent years, with increasing refinements in matching animals to particular areas of land. Cattle, for instance, rip up grass, leaving bare patches of soil. This encourages plants such as the rare star thistle, which flourishes on National Trust land at Frog Firle Farm in East Sussex. Sheep, on the other hand, nibble carefully, which makes them suitable for sensitive archaeological sites.

The National Trust rents land to farmers under strict grazing conditions designed to achieve these effects but has also invested in its own livestock: the Thames and Chilterns Regional Sheep Flock moves around half a dozen Trust sites during the year, calmly eating for England.

On the Lizard in Cornwall, falcons are flying for their country at the Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose. Four of these fierce and elegant hunters are used to scare off flocks of birds which could endanger aircraft using the busiest helicopter training base in Europe.

The airfield is equipped with a van and loudspeaker system that plays bird distress calls, backed up by a flare pistol, but technology by itself is not enough and falcons are immensely popular with staff. Petty Officer Ian Parkes waited years before securing a post in bird control.

'It is something special to the job,' he says. 'On the airfield, they scare off just about anything - seagulls, starlings . . . but not crows, because they're too big for them. You get attached to the falcons. They are working birds, but at the same time I have a young family and they all get involved - the birds come home for weekends sometimes.'

Animals that work on the landscape touch our emotions by becoming more than mere passive victims or providers of meat and wool. We might ask: are they partners in a bigger scheme?

Dr Arthur Lindley, head of wildlife for the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, believes it is important that people recognise our wider debt to working animals. 'It is one of many factors which affect the inter-relationship between humans and animals in general,' he says.

But this is dangerous ground. How, after all, can you recognise a partner - and then eat him?

(Photograph omitted)