Of the birds and the bees .... oh, and horses too !
Stuart Attwood, Total Contact Equine Solutions
This article is also being posted in the blog area of bumblebeeconservation.org and in their Sept 2017 e-magazine
To many landowners the idea of keeping horses on their grazing land or paddocks is an unpleasant one. “Horses will just trash the ground”, they say, or “It’s a waste of space” or even, “I can get more money by turning it over to cows and sheep or even leaving it fallow”. All of which has a truth to it; horses hooves, especially if they’re shod, does mash up the ground when it’s wet; at a recommended ratio of one horse to one acre it doesn’t seem like a good use of space; there are other ways to gain grant aid from DEFRA (even if it’s only secure until 2020 right now !) and other animals do present better opportunities to bring in income. So far it doesn’t look good for the horse owner does it and what about the birds and the bees? However there are a group of horse owners who are creating a great space for horses to live and encourage an abundance of birds, bees and other insects as they do so.
In 2006 a US farrier, turned barefoot trimmer, called Jamie Jackson wrote a book on his observations of how wild horses lived in the Great Basin area of America. The book coined the phrase ‘Paddock Paradise’ as a means of keeping horses as naturally as possible for their overall health and well-being. In the UK we’ve chosen to change this name to ‘Horse Track Systems’ as we’ve developed from the original concept. In January 2013 we started a Facebook group called ‘Horse Track Systems’ with five of us who shared a track in West Kent. We now have well over 6000 members from across the world and, it’s fair to say that, we’ve been surprised by just how many horse owners there are in the UK with tracks and how many want information about them to start their own.
The original Paddock Paradise concept started with four pillars of understanding: horses should be unshod to allow their feet to flex and develop across a range of surfaces; we need to restrict access to lush green grasses as these are too high in sugars and may go on to cause a number of health conditions in the horse like laminitis (like human diabetes) which has been reported to be reaching ‘epidemic’ proportions in the UK and causes many horses to be put to sleep but offer good quality ad-lib hay instead; horses should be kept in mixed sex herds so that they can create a social hierarchy; we need to do all we can to encourage movement in the herd for their overall health. Since starting the Facebook group we’ve encouraged ‘trackies’ to create environments in, and around, their tracks that are suitable habitats for birds, insects of all kinds and small mammals and not just a home for horses. In addition the planting, and use, of medicinal plants for the horses to self select as needed, and the human herd to use as well for culinary and medicinal purposes has been encouraged. This has been especially by Stuart Attwood of Total Contact Equine Solutions who has a keen interest in such planting and the adoption of hedgerow plants for track enrichment. He also advises others, such as the RSPCA Horse and Donkey Rescue and private individuals, on track design and takes groups on medicinal forage walks in their local area where he helps others to identify plants they see as well as offering advice on how to use them medicinally, for the horses, and in a culinary sense where applicable.
Tracks can be created form the scrappiest piece of land that may not be suitable for any other purpose and where grazing is poor – in fact the poorer the better in many ways as the horses are provided with ad-lib hay and they should never be allowed to run out of forage as horses have evolved as ‘trickle feeders’ and may suffer digestive problems like gastric ulcers if they go without food for too long during the day and night. Whatever resources – financial, physical land, natural, understanding – a client has is just fine as tracks evolve over a period of time as understanding and expertise grows. With a well designed track it is possible to have a much higher density of horses per acre than the accepted standard of one per acre. In fact many tracks have up to eight horses on 2 – 3 acres as a herd environment is created and this in turn creates extra movement as the horses naturally forage/browse on the track for hay and other food stuffs. They also move each other around the track as one will move another away from a pile of hay, for instance, and then they go and look for more. There is seldom any aggressive behaviour exhibited by the horses to each other or the human herd as they feel more emotionally secure on a track system.
The design of each track will vary, however, ‘trackies’ are encouraged to have an area of natural planting, relevant to their locale, that the horses can browse on and that will encourage other wildlife into the track area. This ‘set aside’ can be in verges alongside electric fencing for example or, as in the case of the track in West Kent, a large area in the middle of the track. These areas are planted with plants that insects, and bees especially, will find attractive. These might include Borage, Ox Eye Daisies, Common Fleabane, Yarrow, Bird’s Foot Trefoil, Teasels, Alkanet, Comfrey, Yellow Lady’s Bedstraw, Gorse as well as more traditional culinary herbs such as Lavender, Rosemary, Thyme, selections of mints, Lemon Balm and hedgerow favourites such as Common Hogweed, Cow Parsley, Common Mallow, Thistles and even Bindweed ! Yes, even bind weed is welcome as this has great medicinal properties such as acting as a calmer to the horses and to balancing blood sugars preventing a ‘sugar spike’. The horses are free to take what they feel they need to ‘self medicate’ when they feel they need to and it’s interesting to see that they choose to take different plants at different times of the year. The plants and flowers attract many different types of insects and bees of all kinds who can be seen enjoying the nectar at the same time as pollinating the plants as they go. Insect ‘hotels’ have also been set around the track area. In turn the many insects attract other wildlife like the birds – swifts, swallows, chaffinch, goldfinches etc – with certain insects like dung beetles and bung flies attracting bats. The thick mat of grasses encourages small mammals like vowls and these in turn attract owls and birds of prey like kestrels and sparrowhawks. The presence of purple clover is a good indication of the strength of the bee population as only they pollinate this lovely flower that also has medicinal benefits. When the seeds have set the horses are allowed into the open areas and they spread the seeds and trample them into the ground ensuring a good display next year.
The net result of all of this work – and it has taken us four years to get this far – is to have a highly diverse environment that is good for the horses, bees and other insects, birds of all sorts, small mammals …. and the human herd as we benefit emotionally from being part of this unique space and the inter-actions of the many animals that we share it with.
Keeping horses doesn’t have to be ‘cost’ to land owners if they adopt a track system to encourage liveries and rental income. If the initial mutterings of Michael Gove are an indication of things to come then landowners are going to be held more responsible for the biodiversity of the land in their keeping and grants etc may be related much more to that aim. Horse track systems can help gain grant aid in this scenario as a case can be built that habits are being maintained and built to help the environmental aspirations of the day and gain an income into the bargain. Land is precious, we need to make the most of what we’ve got for the benefit of a diverse species list and that’s possible with horse track systems and the sooner that land owners and special interest groups like CRPE, The National Trust, The British Horse Society and conservation groups can see that the better. There is a different way that’s good for all !
Stuart Attwood offers medicinal forage walks in local areas for groups and advice on creating horse tracks systems and can be contacted on 0779 2722625 or through his website at www.total-contact.co.uk