Heavy horses return to help preserve woodland

Frankie Woodgate with Tobias
Frankie Woodgate with Tobias
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It looks like a scene from before the First World War. A trusty heavy horse plodding through woodland pulling tree trunks behind it.

But this historic rural tradition has made a comeback up on the South Downs.

For ancient woodland at Duncton Hanger in the national park, near Chichester, is being restored thanks to two hardworking heavy horses.

Tobias and Yser, and their owner Frankie Woodgate, are helping to clear a 1960s’ plantation of western red cedar trees on the steep and sensitive site, so that native woodland can return.

The work is being carried out in partnership between the national park authority and the Barlavington Estate with the support of the Forestry Commission.

In total about two hectares of cedar plantation will be cleared by Tobias and Yser.

Frankie, of Weald Woodscapes, who has been a professional forester for 17 years, said: ‘You might think using horses is old fashioned but in fact it’s a very progressive way to manage woods.

‘Taking machines into a sensitive area can damage young trees and compact the woodland floor slowing down the return of native trees.

‘Tobias and Yser work very hard and on a good day just one of them can clear up to 20 tonnes of wood.’

Park ranger Graham West said: ‘Clearing a plantation in the middle of an area recognised internationally for the importance of its wildlife is a big challenge. Not only is the land very sensitive but it’s also on a 45-degree slope, so machines just weren’t an option.

‘Using heavy horses means we can get right up into the plantation with very little impact on the rest of the site. In fact having Tobias and Yser’s big hooves scarifying the ground under the plantation will actually help our native trees return sooner.’

The South Downs has more trees than any other national park in England or Wales – enough to completely cover the Isle of Wight – and half of this is ancient woodland.

Because the land under the more recent cedar plantations had a long history of ancient woodland cover it should regenerate naturally over the next few years.