Copyright © 2018 Operation Centaur

"Shires?

They're amazing beasts!"

Sir David Attenborough

Whether you have a small wildflower meadow or large woodland,

we can help you manage it with our Shire horses. 

 

Working horses have an important role in modern conservation management. Innovative horse-drawn machinery can provide solutions to modern conservation challenges, such as helping

control bracken in sensitive acid grasslands. Habitats benefit

from re-introducing traditional land management practices,

such as cutting hay in regenerating wildflower meadows.

At Operation Centaur, we employ all of these approaches.

Working horses have further benefits in conservation, offering low noise disturbance to wildlife, lower soil compaction and impact on flora, when compared to heavier machinery. Horses also have a low carbon footprint. While working, we often design community outreach, publicity, or an educational element into our work, to allow partner organisations to make the most of our presence.

Talk to us about using real horsepower, or
download our PDF on Conservation.

CONSERVATION PROJECTS

YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT OUR CONSERVATION WORK UNDER THE LINKS BELOW.

 

CONSERVATION BENEFITS

Working horses have an important role to play in modern

conservation management.

 

Horses can work efficiently alongside engine-powered machinery, such as traversing otherwise inaccessible woodland slopes in timber extraction. Innovative horse-drawn machinery can provide solutions to modern conservation challenges, such as helping control bracken in sensitive acid grassland habitats.

 

At other times, a habitat may benefit from re-introducing traditional land management practices, such as cutting hay in regenerating wildflower meadows. At Operation Centaur, we employ all of these approaches.

Working horses also have additional benefits in conservation, offering low noise disturbance to wildlife, as well as lower soil compaction and impact on flora, when compared to heavier machinery. Horses also have a low carbon footprint. While working, we often design community

outreach, publicity, or an educational element into our work, to allow  our partner organisations to make the most of our presence.

Historic Royal Palaces and The Royal Parks have worked with us for the past 25 years, where we help deliver conservation estate management and heritage experiences.

 

LAND MANAGEMENT

Grassland Management

Grassland Management is one of our organization’s main tasks. Contact us to discuss any particular requirements for your site. One of our biggest projects is work in Richmond Park, the largest area of lowland acid grassland habitat in Greater London. This rare habitat contributes largely to the parks status as a National Nature Reserve, and its SSSI designation. Acid grassland supports a sensitive community of flora and fauna species, including wildflowers, birds and invertebrates, all specialized for flourishing on poor soil conditions.

Our role in this habitat is four-fold. Large areas of grassland are being lost to encroachment by bracken, so we undertake bracken control, allowing grassland species to recover. Working with the horses has proved the most effective method of the many that have been trialed in the park. It also helps limit compaction of the sensitive soils, and impact on rare flora. While working, we have found we are able to be responsive in avoiding late-nesting birds, and the many historic anthills that date back hundreds of years.

Areas of the park were historically improved for agricultural grazing with fertilizers. These areas are cut for hay in the late summer, to help reduce soil fertility, and allow acid grassland to return. We work alongside tractor contractors with a horse-drawn hay-cutter, with the baled hay used as extra fodder for the horses, or as compost, as part of a sustainable system. This hay-cutting is also being applied in wildflower meadows in other nearby locations, including Barnes Wetland Centre, and Ham Avenues. We currently remove hay by hand on a flat-bed dray, but are exploring horse-powered hay turners, rowers and balers that work from ground-driven Power Take Offs (mechanisms that allows horse power to make a machine rotate or turn).

Mowing grass verges in Richmond Park In winter, we return to these hay-cut areas, where we harrow, helping aerate the ground and loosen dead vegetation. In Richmond Park, we also undertake amenity estate work, mowing the grass verges throughout the spring and summer with gang mowers. For larger areas we work with teams of horses and, for harder to access places, a single horse and mower are used. Partly aesthetic, this mowing also helps to discourage wildlife away from road edges, particularly Red and Fallow Deer fawns.

Woodland management: Why use horses

for urban woodland management?

  • Combining horse-power with traditional woodsmanship skills removes engine fumes, and lowers noise disturbance for local communities and wildlife.

  • Working with horses allows sensitive woodland management, with time taken to create gradual change.

  • Working horses are better able to access smaller urban sites, or sites with large surrounding residential areas.

  • Horses tread lightly in comparison to modern machinery, causing less ground compaction, less soil disturbance, and lower impact on flora.

  • Our carefully crafted outreach and volunteer initiatives allow the local community to become an integral part of our work.

 

Operation Centaur makes working horses relevant to contemporary urban communities. Working closely with these communities, we demonstrate that working horses are a viable alternative in urban conservation and estate management. The gentle pace and quietude of working with horses in conservation allows our team to sensitively observe the impact that our work has on the habitats and wildlife around us, helping us develop a more intimate understanding of what we do.

 

Horses are used in forestry to extract and move timber to stack sites, and take timber off-site when needed, on horse-drawn forwarders. We recognize that within large-scale, commercial forestry, working horses aren’t currently an economically viable comparison to modern extraction and processing machinery. However, within smaller scale woodland management, in woodlands requiring sensitive management, because of wildlife or proximity to urban communities, or in areas less accessible to modern machinery, horses become a viable and sustainable alternative.

Working horses are lighter than modern machinery, so have a lower impact on the woodland floor. They are agile over difficult or sloped terrain, and are flexible in working within denser tree growth, causing less damage to standing trees. Within urban communities, there is also the benefit of causing less noise disturbance. To further this, Operation Centaur fell and prune trees using traditional axe and saw techniques, removing chainsaw noise, and thus disturbance to surrounding wildlife and people. We also aim to maintain a continued relationship with the woodland, such as managing Bracken or Rhododendron that may begin growing in thinned areas. This requires more time, but offers incredibly valuable opportunities for engagement with the local community, something at the core of our work.

 

Adding experiential value for people

Re-introducing a management strategy to unmanaged woodlands can initially create quite stark changes to the structure of vegetation, as the canopy is opened to allow regeneration of sapling native woodland tree species, as well as under-story woodland flowers and shrub species. Working within the parameters of your existing woodland management strategies, we develop sensitive approaches to implement the necessary work, for example, by rotating thinning work of designated areas over a period of several years. This helps softened the changes to the woodland, perhaps by reintroducing a rotational coppice system.

A key component to this work is to actively involve the local community who are connected to, and are using the woodlands. We recognize that working with horses adds an incredible amount of experiential value for people. We design and implement community outreach initiatives, including onsite demonstrations of the work we are doing, and volunteer parties who are trained to assist us in our forestry work. We can also create resources for the community who are involved in a project, such as firewood delivered to them by horse and dray, or wood to local craftspeople.

Our aim is to give this community a better understanding of woodland management, the work we are doing in the woods, and to allow them to become an important part of the management process. To maintain engagement with this community throughout the calendar year, we aim to run events to connect people with the woodland, such as spring bird and wildflower walks, summer tree identification walks, and autumn fungi walks. When we return the following winter to continue our thinning and management work, it’s our hope to have an engaged and supportive community around us.

The Operation Centaur woodlands team are members of British Horse Loggers, the national body representing those working in forestry with horses. With membership, we undertake continued training for professional development. We also hold LANTRA certificates in tree felling, and are trained in traditional woodsman axe and saw techniques. Our horses are experienced working horses, and trained to work in woodlands. Contact us to discuss your requirements.

Areas of the park were historically improved for agricultural grazing with fertilizers. These areas are cut for hay in the late summer, to help reduce soil fertility, and allow acid grassland to return. We work alongside tractor contractors with a horse-drawn hay-cutter, with the baled hay used as extra fodder for the horses, or as compost, as part of a sustainable system. This hay-cutting is also being applied in wildflower meadows in other nearby locations, including Barnes Wetland Centre, and Ham Avenues. We currently remove hay by hand on a flat-bed dray, but are exploring horse-powered hay turners, rowers and balers that work from ground-driven Power Take Offs (mechanisms that allows horse power to make a machine rotate or turn).

Mowing grass verges in Richmond Park

In winter, we return to these hay-cut areas, where we harrow, helping aerate the ground and loosen dead vegetation. In Richmond Park, we also undertake amenity estate work, mowing the grass verges throughout the spring and summer with gang mowers. For larger areas we work with teams of horses and, for harder to access places, a single horse and mower are used. Partly aesthetic, this mowing also helps to discourage wildlife away from road edges, particularly Red and Fallow Deer fawns.

Reed Bed Management

Reed-beds are successional habitats, where if left unmanaged, will eventually return to scrub and woodland carr. Management of these habitats involves restoring beds to an earlier phase in its lifecycle, including opening up waterways, and removing scrub tree species. Traditionally, reed was also cut for thatching, which would maintain this habitat, and provide varied vegetation structure.

 

We are working our horses in managing reed beds, in areas that are less accessible to heavier machinery, extracting Willow and other invasive scrub species such as Blackthorn. As with our forestry, we maintain a philosophy of using hand tools / saws wherever possible, to reduce noise disturbance to wildlife. Where necessary, timber is extracted by the horses to a collection point, for burning, or removal on a horse-drawn flat-bed dray. Safety is paramount within these soft-ground habitats, so we carefully survey our working sites first. Our horse drawn hay-cutter is also adaptable, and able to cut reed.

BRACKEN CONTROL

Bracken control, often referred to as ‘bracken-bashing’, is a means of
managing the spread of this fern species in woodland and grassland habitats. 

After woodland thinning, or at the boundary of woodland-grassland areas, bracken can become invasive, inhibiting the growth of grasses and flowers, or natural woodland regeneration. Our horse-drawn bracken rollers are designed to bruise the bracken stems as they pass over the vegetation, with multiple passes improving the effect. This forces the bracken to use its stored energy in repairing itself, rather than growing and spreading through its system of underground roots, or rhizomes. This work is undertaken during a discreet window in late July/ August, when bracken has reached its maximum growth, but is yet to begin storing winter energy in its rhizomes.

Large areas of SSSI acid grassland are being lost to encroachment by bracken. Many management methods have been trialled, but working with the horses has proved the most effective in stopping bracken spreading. It also helps by limiting compaction of sensitive soils, and impact on flora. While working, we have found we are able to be responsive in avoiding late-nesting birds, and the many historic anthills that date back hundreds of years. Similar benefits are found when working in woodlands, being able to avoid young and sapling trees, fallen logs, and accessing hard-to-reach places.

Contact us if you have a problem with bracken and

let us demonstrate how we work.

 

TRANSPORTATION

Our horses move all manner of materials during estate work,

including hay and firewood. 

When creating grass snake habitats, we transport chestnut paling, compost and volunteers to chosen sites in Richmond Park, to establish safe areas for snakes to lay eggs away from badger predation. We also transport timber in woodland areas to log pile sites, creating habitats for invertebrates, such as Stag Beetles.

In our outreach work to create heritage experiences and educational opportunities for the community around us, we regularly provide dray rides. These are sometimes focused on wildlife experiences, including bird-watching or night wildlife, and sometimes fundraising with leisure rides in nature reserve areas.

 
 

OUTREACH & FUNDRAISING

We are a creative team, understanding that our horses can be a wonderful
focus to draw attention in a variety of capacities. 

We regularly undertake projects to support our partners, including PR events, including mowing London 2012 Olympic rings under the Heathrow flight path in Richmond Park, attending a book launch photo shoot in Hyde Park with Simon Weston, or taking part in Windsor Great Park open day.

Contact us to explore how we can help you raise funds for your organization.

HERITAGE

Working horses are part of our heritage. 

Did you know that Henry VIII first started breeding Shire horses? He wanted a Great War Horse, capable of carrying a knight in full armour. He passed a law making it illegal to export the biggest horses so his breeding programme gave us the Shires as we now know them – the biggest horses in the world, and rarer than the Giant Panda! Now you can come and meet the descendants of Henry’s Great Horse at Hampton Court Palace. We are in the East Front Gardens, and our Coachmen will tell you all about this history while you take a leisurely tram ride. Find out more under Hampton Court tram rides.

We also keep this heritage alive by offering seasonal carriage rides in Richmond Park. More information can be found under Carriage rides. Below, we highlight the importance of keeping our heritage alive.

HERITAGE PROTECTION

Doing our part in protecting our heritage skills

The Prince was pleading for the greater use of working horses, pointing out that in America, some 250,000 farms use horses – why are we not using them in Britain?  Using horses as working animals has very much died out in Britain over the past 100 years or so, but in many parts of the world there has been a great resurgence because there are so many benefits – in many ways the UK has fallen behind other countries. (Paddock, 2012)

The comments by HRH The Prince of Wales and by Paddock (2012) encapsulate the essence of what we do – to protect and train the core heritage skills involved in working with heavy horses.

The natural and obvious places to start returning the working horse are on the traditional estates where they have always worked, prior to being replaced by machinery.  People working with horses in this country are dying out, with no-one to replace them.  It is high time to pass on their knowledge to new and diverse generations before these essential heritage skills are lost forever.

The loss of the working horse would be our loss, too.

The heritage we focus on is both natural and cultural.  We work to preserve and promote a particular traditional relationship with the land around us.  The  relationship of working the land with animal power, in particular native heavy horses, has virtually disappeared in Britain.  As the industrial revolution advanced, traditional ways were found wanting and limiting.  Yet the very limitations that once stood in the way of ‘progress’ may now offer a renewed relevance.  In mainland Europe and the US, the use of horses in these contexts is on the rise, as traditional methods meet contemporary demands.

In June 2015 Operation Centaur was designated an ‘Approved Visitor Centre’ by the Shire Horse Society. The accolade provides recognition that Operation Centaur promotes the breed, protects the heritage and provides opportunities for learning about these magnificent working horses.

Ever wondered what it feels like to drive a pair of horses? 

Join us for a day at work with our heavy horse team, and hold 

the reigns yourself. Get in touch to enquire about dates