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Harnessing heavy horse power

Horse in harness with man walking behind. Woodland setting with pile of logs behind.
Horse logging in Langton Westwood, Purbeck. | © National Trust/Cathy Lewis

Timber is being removed from the ancient woodland of Langton Westwood by the traditional practice of horse logging. Purbeck-based woodsman, Toby Hoad, is carrying out the work for the National Trust with his heavy horses, Etty and Celine.

Horse logging is an alternative to extracting timber using tractors and heavy-duty machinery. This allows the logs to be pulled out between standing trees, minimises soil compaction and pollution, and causes less disturbance to wildlife and people. An added bonus is that the horses’ dung is food for a range of invertebrates.

Coppicing involves removing some trees to allow more light into the woods. This creates sunny glades and rides which will then attract wildflowers, butterflies, bees and other insects. Particular species include:

  • Woodland wildflowers: Early purple orchid, wild strawberry, violets, primrose. Some of these are caterpillar foodplants of many butterflies and moth species.
  • Butterflies: Silver-washed fritillary, brimstone, gatekeeper, ringlet, holly blue and small copper.

This management also ensures there is mixed age range of trees, essential for a healthy woodland. Migratory warblers such as blackcap and chiffchaff need the impenetrable tangle of dense thickets of shrubs and coppiced trees.

Toby carries out countryside management work across the south, keeping traditional skills alive. His horses are a French breed called Comtois. Short, stocky and hardy, Comtois were bred for logging in mountains and ploughing in vineyards.

Langton Westwood, in Langton Matravers near Swanage, is an ancient woodland. Records show it has been a woodland continuously since 1585 but it's probably around 800 years old.