Richmond Park’s much-loved Shire horses weigh over a tonne and are rarer than the giant panda. They are Britain’s largest native breed of horse, yet fewer than 2000 Shire horses remain globally. Ten of them are to be found in Richmond Park.
The Shires came to Richmond Park in 1993, stabled at Operation Centaur run by Dr Andreas Liefooghe, based at Holly Lodge in the middle of the park.
They are a crucial part of the conservation work that takes place in The Royal Parks and the horses are used for the traditional reasons they were bred rather than just for show.
They carry out a lot of the work that would usually be done by tractors. They help mow the verges, manage the wildflower meadows by ploughing the land, and roll the bracken – pushing it back to keep it in check so it doesn’t become overgrown.
This ‘real horse power’ isn’t some romantic ideal. They can get to places machinery can’t reach. The weight of tractors can compact the ground but Shires pull traditional ploughs and their four big feet have a much gentler tread.
In fact, research shows that when the horses work on land instead of machinery, we find greater numbers and a larger variety of wildflowers in the park – such as harebells, heath bedstraw, germander speedwell, heath speedwell, bluebells and mouse-ear hawkweed.
And of course, these gentle giants have a low carbon footprint making them extremely environmentally friendly.
The team at Operation Centaur works hard to keep them happy and healthy.
The Shires are under the supervision of Nic, their food specialist to ensure they get exactly what they need at the right time. The horses get two breakfasts daily, one first thing and then mid-morning. This sets them up for the day. They usually also get lunch, then dinner around six. For the night, they get hay and of course fresh water at all times.
Their meals include barley and oats, as well as chaff (chopped oat straw) with molasses. They also eat a bale of hay each if they're not in the field and they love the apples and carrots they get in their feed at the end of the day.
Importantly they aren’t fed titbits - this makes horses unhappy and discontent. They're always on the lookout for the next food source, which could be distraction since our horses work with the public, so this isn’t encouraged.
These are muscular, athletic animals and require a huge amount of exercise – so you might spot them trotting around the park. This is why they are particularly suited to pulling heavy machinery – like humans going to the gym, it’s a workout for them and makes them feel good.
Head horseman, Tom Nixon at Operation Centaur, tells us more about the work carried out by the Shire Horses - in particular how they carry out crucial conservation work across the Royal Parks. Find out more in these videos:
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