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A new era of horse-ownership – where sustainable management practices reap ecological rewards

Article by Gemma Holmes

I am a horse owner of 10 years. My first horse, Mac came to me whilst studying Ecology at University. Mac came home with me and I had no student loan left to speak of. This was my head first dive into the complicated, sometimes-painful, sometimes-rewarding, often-frustrating world of horsemanship and horse management.

Mac had every problem under the sun. He had been managed terribly and had lived on short, overgrazed grass most of his life. I bought Mac home to a yard in the Essex lowlands. Our yard was on clay and a steep slope. We lost around 30% of our grass yield to mud, and in the summer months these muddy patches turned to ruts and dust. It was a painful mud-sharp ruts-mud cycle.

This unsustainable unrestricted grazing also created an ecologically-devoid habitat consisting of plants adapted to high stress environments. Such plants, including common rye grass, white clover and creeping buttercup are generally unsuitable for horse consumption.

This near-monoculture (or green carpet), along with mud/dust is seen time and time again when driving past horse properties. They appear sorry and lacking in life.

A qualified ecologist and keen horse owner; I have been reviewing my horse management practices in recent years. In the simplest sense, traditional horse-keeping practices drive wildlife off the land. A food chain; that is the sequence of the transfer of energy from one organism to another in an ecological community must begin with a producer, usually a green plant that creates its own food through photosynthesis. An simple food chain might then look like: Plants – invertebrates – amphibians - birds of prey. However, if stocking densities are too high or pasture is not rested or there is a lack of structure (i.e. only short green grass), there is little for invertebrates to feed on or pollinate and the food chain falls apart.

Why is this important?

You may ask why your small horse property matters because it is a tiny dot on the landscape. It is important because a huge amount of our land (particularly lowland Britain) is grazed by horses. This lack of empathy for the environment is causing ecological loss and soil erosion on a national scale.

So how can we manage horse properties sustainably?

The Equicentral System encourages splitting your land into paddocks that are rotated, and the grass rested until it reaches a certain length. Longer grass has more structure and supports a larger number of invertebrates, in turn increasing pollination efforts on your land and improving your wildflower, grass and herb yield. Surfaced holding yards are used to hold horses when grass becomes too short; reducing or even eliminating mud. Water, hay and hard feed are also located in the yard to reduce stress on your land. Utilising this system can eliminate your mud/dust/mud cycle for good and begin to restore your soil biome, resulting in an improved grass yield! It’s a no brainer.

A larger diversity of insects also encourages foraging bats (not the blood sucking kind!).

As well as being a great indicator of a healthy ecosystem, bats (we have 17 species breeding in the UK) consume large numbers of undesirable insects including mosquitos, which can cause great stress for horses in summer - particularly at dusk. As well as improving your pasture, you can also install bat boxes on boundary trees and retain/plant boundary vegetation to create commuting corridors and make your land irresistible to bats. Bats are your ultimate pest control, look after them!

Picture: My own setup, a work in progress.

As well as being a passionate horse owner dedicated to sustainableethical horse management, I am a consultant ecologist with nine years of experience supporting clients in securing planning permission. Embedded in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) paragraph 109 is a requirement for all development to conserve and enhance biodiversity. If you require planning consent for a hard standing yard area as part of an Equicentral setup, consider using a consultant ecologist to support your case as our in depth knowledge of protected and priority species (combined, in my case with a passion for sustainable horse property management) could give your planning officer the confidence to grant consent.

Please do spread the word about this revolutionary way of managing horse properties. The benefits for human, equine and ecology are indisputable.

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