After decades of tractor domination, horsepower has returned to Northern Ireland.
Thanks to our Ferguson-led love affair with machinery, it’s a long time since horses were used for any commercial agricultural work — but two sturdy Jutland horses have begun hauling timber at the National Trust’s Minnowburn property in south Belfast.
It’s many years since horses have dragged logs in Northern Ireland, but the traditional and eco-friendly practice has been increasing in popularity in England, Scotland and Wales in recent years.
Fascinated neighbours have been flocking to the National Trust site to see two logging horses in action — they’ve been named ‘Samson’ and ‘Goliath’ after the massive Harland & Wolff shipyard cranes.
Noel Donaghy is the first horse-logger to ply his trade in Northern Ireland in years. He bought the two Jutland horses from Denmark and the rig they need to drag trees.
Samson has already been out and about getting started on the job with the help of reins and voice control.
His work has been documented by the BBC Countryfile team who will be airing their report on Sunday — in fact, following a tutorial from Total Tree Care’s Stephen Donaghy, presenter Matt Baker had a go at horse-logging himself.
After Noel set up his new venture, his first customer was the National Trust, who needed thinned larch logs felled in Minnowburn dragged to the roadside.
Craig Somerville of the trust said: “When the National Trust Belfast team found out about Noel’s venture we were keen to lend some support and become his first customer.
“The horses are drawing thinned larch logs to the roadside. The appearance of these mighty beasts has caused a stir in the local community with people coming to have a look at these wonderful animals in action.
“Heavy machinery often disturbs drainage, damages flora, compacts the soil and may cause damage to surrounding trees. So this method of extraction is particularly appealing.
“Added to that, the noise and fumes from machinery can make woodland operations pretty unattractive to be around.
“By contrast, there is something magical about the sight of these chestnut beauties doing what they were bred to do.”
Craig believes the enthusiasm here for tractors after Harry Ferguson’s inventions caught on is the reason why horse-logging has died out.
“Northern Ireland was probably one of the first countries in the world to really embrace the tractor so the horses died out here quicker than everywhere else. It never really died out in England, Scotland and Wales,” he said.
“You wouldn’t believe the difference between a horse and a machine doing the same job. When you use machinery it’s compacting the soil, compacting the roots of trees left behind. Machines and tractors can cause a fair bit of damage, they’re noisy and oily and knock bark off trees.
“Within weeks you would hardly know the horse had been there.”
Horse-logging is the removal of felled timber using horses.
Horse-logging has grown very popular in recent years as the practice is traditional, eco-friendly and the horses can work in steep conditions where machinery would often get stuck.
Breeds include Ardennes and Suffolk Punch and the animals are often smaller than traditional carthorses as they have to be more agile.
Typically, they can work a six-seven-hour day, removing eight-10 tonnes of timber. By contrast heavy machinery disturbs drainage and flora, compacts the soil and can damage trees.