by Michael Smith (Veshengro), RFS, RFA, EcoFor
Horses were very valuable to farmers and gave the farmer extra income by hauling timber in the winter. This was when the horse was in general use on farms but today the horse still should have a place in forestry for one and will, of this we can be sure, soon also have that place again in farming.
The horse, from heavy horses to lighter drafts ones, were a common sight until the Second World War and a decade or so after until the tractor and winch replaced them, though not and never entirely. Some areas carried on using the horse and some do again.
Aside from pulling wagons the horse in forestry was primarily used to pull tree trunks from the felling area to the roadside and such like and has a much lighter footprint on the ground than does the tractor or today's tree harvesters. Thus, our four-legged friends are much better for the forest environment as they do not churn up the ground and destroy the new growth.
With few of protecting the environment and the forest floor and natural regeneration the use of the horse in forestry operations has a future for sure and, in fact, it should be reintroduced at a larger scale right now, before we have destroyed the forests further with the heavy machines.
When it comes to energy-savings then the horse definitely has a lot going for it and the future of forestry definitely will have to consider its use on a large scale again. The large timber harvesters are not sustainable in the long run and not even in the short one.
While it is true that the harvesters replace many men in the woods with chainsaws and even more with crosscut saws those machines are (1) only suitable for complete clear-cutting operations and (2) their heavy fuel use makes them simply unsustainable on all levels. The cost of running them will simply soon be too great for them to be viable and thus a change will have to be considered.
The future of forestry is four-legged and human power, as it once was, as there is simply no other way when it comes to sustainable forest and woodland management. This is also especially true when it comes to woodland management in Britain and elsewhere where we are talking of smaller tracts of land and of coppicing and small scale felling operations.
The horse and its handler are by far more beneficial to the woods as is any machine and without its use, as is the case very often today, the wood from thinning operations simply is left where it falls, as habitat, as it is often claimed, instead of being utilized as it should.
All too often even large trunks are left on site after thinning operations simple because they cannot be extracted with a tractor and winch or in any other motorized way. And this is due very much and often to the fact that draft horses are no longer about in the vicinity and often getting a horse and handler who still work the forests somewhere is too costly.
Those trunks, however, represent wasted resources and should be recovered. Not only do they represent financial value their decay sets free both CO2 and methane, with the latter being an even more potent and dangerous greenhouse gas than the former.