The days when horsepower really mattered

Horses ploughing the Lincolnshire fields.
Horses ploughing the Lincolnshire fields.
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In my 65th year, I’m just old enough to remember horse-drawn transport. In the midland town I was brought up in, I can remember milk delivered from the churn from the back of a horse-drawn cart and a handsome blue, single horse power box van delivering the bread.

I recall my grandfather, in flat cap, collarless shirt with sleeves held up with elasticated arm bands with his bucket and shovel, collecting the inevitable by-products of the horse’s visit for recycling on his allotment.

Just a few years later, the electric milk float and the Corona lorry had arrived and the horse was gone from our daily lives.

There have been wild horses for nearly a million years and domesticated horses since Roman times. In 1901, there was a domesticated horse for every 10 people in the country. Now it is one for every 85 of us.

In the 20th Century, horse power was gradually replaced by tractors, but perhaps surprisingly, looking back, the horse was still the prime mover for farmers until the mid ’50s. If you subscribe to social media, there are dozens of groups with thousands of members devoted to pictures from the ‘golden years’ of farming and the horse features prominently in many of the monochrome photos on these sites.

Horses pulling carts laden with produce, horses towing implements for working the soil, riding horses for work and leisure.

At the turn of the 20th Century, about half of the three-and-a-quarter-million horses in Britain were working on farms. Most of the rest were transporting goods or people around towns and were carrying more goods to market than the railways.

Apart from the invaluable work they did on the land, they created employment in our rural communities - wagonmakers, smithies and stable workers.

Horses shaped rural life and also the appearance of the countryside; now the landscape of picture books and nostalgic social media sites.

Mechanisation has changed the landscape. Hedgerows and trees have gone, fields are much larger, the patchwork of crops less varied, the landscape more monotonous. That is not a bad thing, the countryside is always changing and will continue to do so to respond to the needs of the market, to legislation and to farming practice.

But there are consequences to change. Fewer hedgerows mean less habitat for a varied wildlife. Widespread use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers change the balance of life. More adaptable species dominate, weaker species disappear, the natural balance is upset.

An unexpected victim of the decline in horse numbers may be sparrows, which eat grain and other seeds, often foraged from horse dung.

Agriculture is more efficient with much less wastage, so the loss of a staple and widespread food source from declining horse numbers may have contributed to the decline of the humble but much loved sparrow.

To protect our much loved countryside, we need to be alert for any changes or challenges or challenges that have a detrimental effect on it.