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The Campaign to Save Shire Horses

Shire horses are magnificent animals and were once common sights up and down the country. But now only 1500 remain and that makes them rarer than giant pandas. The situation is extremely worrying and Prince Charles has called for the horses to be considered an endangered species. They might then be afforded greater protection.

Replaced by Machinery

Just 130 years ago, there were estimated to be a million Shire horses in the UK. However, the arrival of the internal combustion engine meant that these working horses gradually became redundant. The number of horses has continued to fall and Shire horses are now designated at-risk by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

In London, there were once 6,000 Shire horses working in the brewing industry alone but now there is just one working herd of eight horses.

The Ultimate War Horse

Shire horses date back to the time of Henry VIII. The king wanted to develop the ultimate war horse so he introduced the Breed of Horses Act in 1535. The aim was to stop a noticeable decline in the quality and size of horses. In the following three centuries Shire horses served on the battlefield, worked in agriculture and were important assets during the Industrial Revolution when they transported coal from mines to trains.

Shire horses also pulled narrow boats down canals. The boats would be heavily laden with goods but the horses could pull 50 times more weight on the water than they could on the roads. But as mechanisation took hold, the horses fell out of favour.

Turning Full Circle

But could things be about to change? These days environmental concerns mean that green alternatives are becoming more popular and important. Shire horses are ideally suited to small farms, woodland and parks.

Now, The Last Herd Project is charting the work of Shire horses in Buck Hill in Kensington Gardens, London. This area has been turned into a meadow and a three-year trial is underway to see how cultivating the land with Shire horses will influence the way the pasture regenerates itself. The horses don’t compact the soil and so there is a positive effect on the germination of old seeds that are lying dormant.

Certain species of wild flower which have been absent from the park for several decades, are thriving again in Buck Hill. Kestrels have also been seen in the area for the first time in years.


Meanwhile, there are two shire horses working at Hampton Court Palace where they pull tourists around and another pair at Richmond Park. Shire horses are also being used in equine assisted psychotherapy. They have been helping in anti-bullying projects in schools and also in projects to help female prisoners raise their self-esteem.

The Shire horse is a symbol of strength, gentleness, power and grace. These wonderful animals could certainly remain relevant in the modern era. We should make every effort to try and save the breed.


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