Andy Robinson – Working Animal Supervisor
Weald & Downland Living Museum – May
Working the Fields
At the start of the year I took on a challenge to plough a 12-acre field in just 12 days using only traditional farming techniques and methods. Working with my Percheron horse Kash and the Museum’s two heavy horses Ollie and Leon, we managed to complete the arduous task in 15 days after overcoming a few setbacks. We spent over 100 hours in total ploughing the field with rest days in-between and a further 9 days of rest afterwards for the horses and me.
Since then, we’ve been steadily working on preparing the soil in this field by dressing out and rolling, then drilling and harrowing the ground. The field has been divided into three sections and planted with different crops including spelt, which is in dire need of rain now to help its growth. We have continued to harrow the ground to stop the weeds growing faster than the spelt crop, but it is very dry. There are definitely pros and cons to this spell of dry weather.
In the centre of the field is a cover crop, with vetch, field radish and mustard. This is planted to give the soil in this area a rest and add nutrients back in.
The final section of the field has an oats and pea crop, which will be cut as a whole. If we have fine weather at the right time in the summer, it will be dried in the field in stooks and then stored as food for the heavy horses over the winter. Immediately afterwards, turnips and forage rape will be planted, which the sheep will graze on in strips later in the year, and will add nutrition to the soil.
As in the past, a lot depends on having the right weather conditions at the right time. For us it is inconvenient, but in the past for many of the inhabitants of our historic homes and so many others it was far more serious and there were few safety nets when the crops failed.
Across the smaller pastures on the Museum’s site, the conditions are managed by grazing first the horses then the sheep; horses eat more selectively and then sheep will graze it low and less selectively. The animal’s dung enriches the areas and this is why the sheep move on, so they have good grass to graze.
Our fields have lots of flint, which interestingly seems to appear even a long time after the ploughing and removal of the larger pieces. Historically collecting rocks would have been a job for children, but today our team do this as they walk the fields with the horses.
Next week, visitors will see the chickens and geese again as the avian flu restrictions will be lifted nationally. The geese will return to the orchard and you’ll be able to spot the chickens out and about around the Museum.
To find out more about traditional agricultural techniques and tools, organic farming and the role of working heavy horses, you can join us for our next Historic Life Weekend on 7-8 May. There will be lots to discover and learn, with talks and demonstrations from experts on topics such as bee keeping, gardening, conservation, compositing and bug-themed activities for younger visitors. To find out more visit wealddown.co.uk