Murdoch the shire horse pulls his weight to help butterflies

A bit of a drag: the Operation Centaur shire horse was put to work clearing dumped vehicles from the nature reserve yesterday

Shire horse photographs by ANDREW SMITH

A nose for work: Murdoch is helping to keep the tradition of working horses alive

Nature conservators were making hay while the sun shined yesterday, with Murdoch the shire horse returning for his now annual visit to Hutchinson’s Bank nature reserve just outside New Addington.

As well as providing a relatively low-impact means of cutting the thick, tall grasses which have grown so strongly during the hot and wet summer, Murdoch and the team of expert handlers from Operation Centaur, a working horse project based at Richmond Park, also managed to clear an abandoned motorbike and a discarded golf cart from the world-renowned butterfly sanctuary.

Making hay: the wildflower meadows at Hutchinson’s Bank have thrived this hot and wet summer

Murdoch – who weighs in at more than 1 ton – is a regular visitor t the reserve, mowing the wildflower meadows in what is seen to be a more sustainable and ecologically friendly way of estate maintenance.

The shire horse is able to go into woodland and other areas which cannot be reached by heavy motorised vehicles, and while the Bank’s chalky soils might easily be damaged by trucks, Murdoch leaves barely a hoof-print.

Ready for home: his day’s work done, rusty vehicles cleared, Murdoch is readied for a return to his stables

Hutchinson’s Bank, which is owned by Croydon Council, is renowned for its ground-breaking ecology programme, having nursed back from near-extinction species of rare butterflies on its chalk downland habitat.

As well as plants such as the pyramidal and man orchids, and greater yellow-rattle, more than 100 species of moth and 36 of butterfly have been recorded there.

Murdoch and other shire horses from Operation Centaur have been used in a range of grass-cutting and other eco-friendly conservation projects around London’s Royal Parks and stately homes.

Operation Centaur says, “Working horses have an important role in modern conservation management. Innovative horse-drawn machinery can provide solutions to modern conservation challenges, such as helping control bracken in sensitive acid grasslands.

A brown hairstreak butterfly, doing well at Hutchinson’s Bank

“Habitats benefit from re-introducing traditional land management practices, such as cutting hay in regenerating wildflower meadows.

“Working horses have further benefits in conservation, offering low-noise disturbance to wildlife, lower soil compaction and impact on flora, when compared to heavier machinery. Horses also have a low-carbon footprint.”

The grass-cutting is one of a series of events this week – Big Butterfly Week – organised under the Brilliant Butterflies scheme run by the London Wildlife Trust, who manage Hutchinson’s Bank and other nearby wildlife reserves.

There is Austrian hay scything at the bank today, and there’s a volunteers’ workday taster session being held there on Sunday. For more details, click here.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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