All The Farm That Is Fit To Print

Thursday, March 22, 2012

When shire horses ruled the landscape

3:00am Friday 5th August 2011 in Memories By Tom King Graham Collins with his two shire horses, Harry and Joe LOVE at first sight. How can anyone really know the meaning of those words until they encounter Harry and Joe? They tower above their stalls, soft-eyed giants with glistening coats and flicking tails, extraordinary compounds of power and gentleness. They are instantly loveable. Harry and Joe are shire horses, successors to a breed that has pulled, ploughed and moved mountains on behalf of England for hundreds of years. Shires were the predecessors to tractors and JCBs, equine machines bred to do the heavy, muddy work. Part of the natural affection people feel for shire horses must come from gratitude. There is, though, another reason why human hearts go out to Harry and Joe. Despite their massive size and strength, there is a surprising air of vulnerability about them. Right now, they need all the love they can get. Working horse numbers have inevitably declined. The shire horse’s cousin and neighbour, the Suffolk Punch, is actually a Category One Endangered Species. Only 400 are left in the world. They are rarer than giant pandas. The shire horse’s situation is less critical, but it is nevertheless officially “a breed under threat” and it needs to be tended. It was for this reason the Essex Shire Horse Association was set up 24 years ago. The association has fought to keep the historic breed intact, both in numbers and quality of bloodline. Now, though, it is the humans who find themselves looking into the twilight. “Shire horses’ welfare has been very dependent on a number of devoted individuals with the land and other resources to maintain them,” says Maureen Cheek, an ESHA committee member from Leigh. “Often they were farmers who were old enough to remember when heavy horses were still used on the land, and unfortunately age is taking its toll.”

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