Scotney Castle calls in the cavalry to help care for woodlands

A heavy horse at work at Scotney Castle. Photo credit: National Trust / Laurence Perry

A romantic 18th-century ruined castle is swapping modern machinery for heavy horses to help care for its woodlands – mimicking a tradition that dates back centuries. 

Real horse-power will be used by National Trust rangers at Scotney Castle in Kent to clear timber that has been removed as part of coppicing work, a technique which stimulates tree growth and improves wildlife habitats.  

Despite their power and stature, the horses have been drafted in as a lighter alternative to tractors as they cause less damage to the clay soil and surrounding trees. They are also a greener option, carrying a smaller carbon footprint than fuel-powered machinery.  

It is the first time heavy horses have been used as part of coppicing work by the National Trust at Scotney. In the High Weald where Scotney Castle is located, however, there is a long tradition of using animals to extract wood. 

Historically oxen were used by farmers to negotiate the deep valleys, small fields and numerous streams and rivers. Like heavy horses, oxen were robust yet did not sink in the muddy, clay-based soil that causes issues for modern machinery.

Richard Newman, Area Ranger at Scotney Castle says:

“The landscape surrounding Scotney has not changed much in the last 1,000 years. Many of the road routes date from before the Romans, and possibly into the bronze age, and still run north to south, following the routes people used to drive animals into the area for summer grazing. We still have a relic of a bolster that carried timber out of the woodlands in our old timberyard here.”

The team will be putting the horses to work in an area of woodland which has old clay pit workings and narrow access through the trees. Heavy machines would churn up the soils and vegetation, but the horses will expertly negotiate the tricky terrain to help clear timber across a hectare of woodland, including sweet chestnut, hazel and the occasional alder. 

Richard adds:

“Coppicing is a traditional woodland management technique, where we cut trees or shrubs back to ground level to stimulate growth. It is an important way of maintaining a healthy habitat for woodland creatures like hairstreak butterflies and dormice.

“The traditional use of heavy horses to work the land declined after the Second World War, when modern machinery took over. So it is really special to be able to incorporate them back into our land management as they would have been centuries ago.” 

The timber extracted during coppicing at Scotney is recycled as biomass, providing heat and hot water for the café, shop and onsite residences, and as fencing and playground materials. It forms part of the National Trust’s commitment to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2030. 

Source: National Trust


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