This last week has been hot with clear skies and bright sunshine, definitely straw-hat weather. I am a keen and consistent wearer of hats, a cloth cap in winter and a straw hat in summer. In between, there are a few weeks when I’m not sure what to wear, but I do need some head covering as I have got to that stage in life when, if the growth on the top of my head was a cover crop, you’d be thinking about ploughing it up and starting again!
Whilst on a trip to Germany at the end of August I took the opportunity once again to visit Pferdestark, the biggest gathering of work horses in Europe, which takes place every other year in the north German town of Detmold. Pferdestark is a honey pot for people from across Europe interested in the practical application of live horse power, as well as those who just like to see the big horses, so by the time I arrived half an hour before the start, visitors from far and wide were already flooding onto the site around the old post windmill overlooking the open air museum and the town.
Anyone who has had a conversation with Geoff about working horses, especially if they work horses themselves, will realise that Geoff, through his work and interest in everything to do with the working horse, has already done a great deal to preserve and pass on this knowledge. After talking with Geoff, I am probably not the only one who is left with the impression that, despite having my head full of interesting and useful information, there is still a lot more to learn.
There is a rather neat phrase in German – ‘wenn schon, denn schon’ – which literally translates as ‘enough already, then already;’ but what it actually means is ‘if a something is worth doing, it is worth doing well. That would be a fitting description of Pferdestark, the German version of Horse Progress Days. For sheer variety of different breeds of draught horses, regional and national harness styles, or for that matter, languages or hats, it would be hard to beat Pferdestark.
Having written this down I must admit to a slight embarrassment. It is not because I worry about admitting to a lack of skill, or fear being seen as a romantic. It is because some of you will have similar stories, perhaps more impressive stories, as this is just the sort of thing that happens when you spend enough time with horses at work. It is at once normal, but also extraordinary.
For the last ten years, I have made hay mostly with a single horse. This has not necessarily been out of choice, as at one time I had hoped to be farming on a larger scale with more horses. Anyway, it does little good to dwell on ‘what if ’. The reality is that I am able to make hay, and through making and modifying machinery, I probably have a better understanding of hay making and the mechanics of draught.
From reading the Small Farmers Journal, I knew that some people are equally happy with either model, but because McCormick Deering had gone to the trouble of developing the No. 9, it suggests they could see that there were improvements to be made on the No. 7. Even if the improvement was small, with a single horse any improvement was likely to increase my chance of success.
In parallel with making hay on the ground, nearly every year I have also made some hay on tripods. The attraction of this method is that it only needs one day of good weather to dry the grass sufficiently before it is put on the tripods, and then the hay takes very little harm no matter what the weather, usually coming out green, dry and smelling of hay two weeks later when it can be baled or stacked.
Over the last few years of making hay, the mowing, turning and making tripods has settled into a fairly comfortable pattern, but the process of getting it all together for the winter is still developing. In the beginning I did what everyone else around here does and got it baled, but one year I decided to try one small stack. The success of this first stack encouraged me to do more, and now most of my hay is stacked loose.
Arriving at Higher Biddacott Farm, after driving through the quiet enclosed lanes which wind their way up and down the hills of North Devon, you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing much happens here. But Higher Biddacott is a hive of purposeful activity, with horses coming and going, dogs running about, and people arriving for Bed and Breakfast, or to enjoy the Devon landscape from the back of a horsedrawn wagon.
There are several prerequisites to ploughing successfully: you need a workable plough, somewhere suitable to plough, and horses which will walk where you want them to, at a slow to moderate pace. You also need to know the feel of the plough, how to adjust it, and how to control the horses. Once you can do all these things, then you can plough, but for each one that you cannot yet tick off your list, the harder it will be to learn. Fortunately, some of these skills can be achieved before you ever get near a moving plough, and the more boxes you can tick before you start, the easier it will be. Let’s start by breaking down the act of ploughing into its component parts.
Looking back at the garden after seven months of the growing season, the time seems to have whizzed by, the hopes and expectations of March and April have been made, worked upon and revised, and now they have either been achieved or disappointed. Most years I keep a gardening/farming diary, usually the bare bones of sowing and planting dates, haying notes and veterinary treatments, and it is always a useful reference for the future, but whenever I have written more I never regret the extra detail. Last year however, I was too busy and preoccupied to write anything down and had to rely instead on the empty seed packets as a guide to what I grew, but this year of course I have these letters as reference, so next year it can’t fail to be great! Can it?
What a change just three weeks can bring. Like nearly everywhere else in Europe, here in Britain we have been in near lockdown for two weeks, only able to go out to buy essential food or medicine, once a day for exercise, or to go to work if absolutely necessary. For me, and I guess for many of you who live on farms and ranches [if you also have to stay at home], much of my daily routine has stayed pretty much the same, and that is mostly what I want to tell you about.
At the centre of the quiet village of Wendlinghausen in north western Germany is the early 17th century castle, Schloss Wendlinghausen. In August last year it again provided the setting for Pferdestark, the biennial exposition of draught horses and modern machinery. If you know Horse Progress Days, but shrink it to a tenth of the size, and swap most of the straw hats and baseball caps for a range of traditional European headgear, then you’ll get an approximate impression of Pferdestark. Though the scale of the two events is very different, what they share is a great atmosphere, lots of good horses and interesting machinery.
The exciting thing about going to new places and seeing different things is that you never know beforehand what you will get out of it. One such instance was my visit to the first British Festival of the Working Horse, where the weather was dreadful, the range of equipment a little disappointing, but the unexpected highlight was Henry Finzi-Constantine’s presentation to the mini conference, in which he talked about the introduction of a working horse into his Italian biodynamic vineyard. His wholehearted enthusiasm for the wine, the vineyard and the horse was both infectious and delightful, but for me at least, also slightly embarrassing, because in describing what the horse brings to his operation, there were no caveats, no ifs or buts.
When horses were the main source of power on every farm, in the British Isles it was the tip-cart, rather than the wagon which was the most common vehicle, and for anyone farming with horses, it is still an extremely useful and versatile piece of equipment. The farm cart was used all over the country, indeed in some places wagons were scarcely used at all, and many small farms in other areas only used carts.
While we visited the allotment, we all pitched in with a hoe or a trowel to remove some of the weeds, but we also took a little tour around the two-acre allotment site, sandwiched between a railway line and a sports field. I have always liked allotments; some people might see them as messy and untidy, with old pallets, wonky and fading sheds, plastic cups and food containers, wooden boxes, old CDs and other junk pressed into service to hold up netting, to shelter plants, collect water or scare the birds. But I like the variety and the fruitfulness, the ingenuity and attention, the money saving and the commitment, and I love the atmosphere of quiet and companionship as every allotment holder shapes their plot in the way they think fit.
When I first got involved with working horses in the late 1980s, I was lucky enough to work for the late Geoff Morton who used horses for nearly everything on the farm. With the enthusiasm of the novice I was constantly asking questions. What I often thought was a straightforward question would often elicit a pause, and as often as not the answer was preceded by, ‘Well, there’s more about it than you might think.’