They were once a staple of the English countryside, and essential to agricultural farm work. But today, thanks to the advent of technology and tractors, shire horses are now even rarer than pandas, with less than 2,000 left in the world.
However, there is a hardy group of seven shires working hard to make the case for the breed’s survival – in cities.
Operation Centaur manages London’s last working herd of shire horses, and has done for the last decade, ever since Young’s Brewery stopped using shires to pull wagons full of beer barrels. While trucks may trump Shires in terms of effectively getting beer to the thirsty masses, Dr Andreas Liefhooge and his team at Operation Centaur are convincing a growing number of London boroughs that shires are in fact better than tractors for managing London’s green spaces.
For those unfamiliar with shires, they are the giants of the equine world, descended from the war horses bred to charge into battle carrying knights dressed in full armour. At up to 1100kg in weight and around 19 hands in height – that’s 76 inches to the highest point of their withers, or shoulder if you’re not familiar with equine terminology – you can see why they would be rather terrifyingly good at that. Liefhooge refers to his shires as “total athletes” that “have six packs”.
You can see these athletes out and about in the likes of Richmond Park, Hyde Park, Clapham Common, Wandsworth Common, and Brockwell Park and many other green spaces around London, helping to conserve wildflower meadows and woodlands (and presumably making the British Military Fitness nuts feel a bit inadequate). To conserve the wildflower meadows they harrow, scarify and mow the land in key parts of the year to help suppress fast growing grasses and nettles, and allow more, and a greater variety of, wildflowers to grow.
Well why can’t a tractor do that, some disgruntled tractor drivers (and the aforementioned fitness freaks with fragile egos) may cry. Well, “the trouble with tractors,” according to Liefhooge, “is that they compress the soil, and wildflowers don’t like compressed soil, so you don’t get the same result.”
Not only are they better at creating healthier and more varied wildflower meadows: the shires also handily tick the eco-friendly box for councils. “Tractors use diesel and as such emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates, especially when ploughing deep into hard soils of the kind we find on Clapham Common,” says Dr Iain Boulton, a Lambeth council officer. “With the horses, the only major emissions are from the horse van used to them to and from Richmond Park, but we assesses this and the net use of fuel was far lower than if we were using tractors all day.” Plus, their manure is pretty good for the soil.
Meanwhile, the relative nimbleness of shires compared to modern agricultural machinery means they are better for tasks such as bracken rolling and logging, which are necessary to manage London’s woodlands.
There is a less obviously tangible benefit too. “People don’t come out of their houses to see a tractor work on a piece of land, but they do when they see a pair of shire horses working – it really brings communities together,” argues Liefhooge. The horses apparently have a big fan club who always come out to see them (and with those six packs and flowing manes of hair who could blame them?). Boulton agrees that the visual appeal of the horses working on popular, public open spaces are another reason to use shires. “We wanted to show the public that we can be creative and innovative in how we transform and improve our public parks… and in a fun and entertaining way too.”
In an age of growing loneliness, with people interacting less and staring at a screen more, every little thing – or rather big four-legged thing – undoubtedly helps. Indeed, these shires’ contribution to mental wellbeing doesn’t just stop there – they are also used by Liefhooge for equine psychotherapy sessions with prisoners, soldiers with PTSD and young people with special needs. Their gentle temperaments and uncanny awareness of human feelings and behaviour make them a perfect alternative to the therapist’s couch.
The herd frankly might be flying the flag for showing off shires as the most modern breed of horse – eco-conscious and mindful of mental health. They are, arguably, more relevant than ever.