Shires in the city: how working horses protect London’s green spaces

  • Shire horses have been helping to restore patches of Hampstead Heath.

    Nobby and Heath, from Operation Centaur, harrowed areas that had been churned up by runners competing in the English National Cross-Country Championships, which were held on 24 February.

    The organisation maintains the last stable of working Shires in London.

    Its aim is promote the horse as a contemporary working animal and it also helps protect the endangered breed.

    Credit: Sally Ashby Studio

    “It was the first time we have worked up on Hampstead Heath, it’s a new project for us which is great,” Operation Centaur’s Andreas Liefooghe told H&H.

    “We usually work for historic palaces and the Royal Parks.

    “We do conservation work, particularly in urban spaces, and we try to make working horses relevant again in contemporary spaces.

    “In these small patches of green land in London it makes sense to do this work with Shire horses [rather than machinery].”

    Credit: City of London Corporation

    He added that using working horses for conservation in London is a good way of increasing community engagement and raising the profile of Shire horses.

    Operation Centaur has a total of 20 working horses, including eight Shires.

    “Nobody comes out when you are there with a tractor, but you bring a pair of Shire horses and you are mobbed — it is incredibly good for engagement with the community,” said Mr Liefooghe.

    “In that way, we actually can compete with tractors — we don’t just use horse power, we bring people power as well.”

    Many of the landscapes the team work on are delicate, so Shires are also preferable to tractors in a number of cases.

    Credit: City of London Corporation

    Heath, 12, is the more experienced of the two horses, while seven-year-old Nobby has a more “rebellious” character but has now settled into his job.

    “Now he gets it — being in that team [with Heath] gives him that safety and security, and he is amazing,” said Mr Liefooghe.

    “Shire horses tend to be quite slow to mature and you have to work with them and be patient.

    “We treat all our horses as ‘colleagues’ — we don’t force them, we have some horses who like doing certain things and not others. So we try to give them the careers they enjoy.”

    Operation Centaur is returning to Hampstead Heath on 15 July to help with haymaking.

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    Credit: Sally Ashby Studio

    Karina Dostalova, chairman of the City of London Corporation’s Hampstead Heath management committee, said she was pleased to welcome the horses to the heath.

    She added using horses meant areas that are difficult to access were reached and the restoration work was able to take place swiftly after the races had finished.

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