“Total athletes with six packs”: The shire horses keeping London’s parks going

Phwoar: shire horses at Kensington Palace. Image: Getty.

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.



Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.