War horses face extinction in UK
Horse power is not what it used to be. These huge horses were need for the heavy cavalry of the middle ages when knights wore armored plate. Between the Swiss and their technique for fighting the heavy cavalry using halberds to snare and pull down the knights and the use of gun powder to could project bullets through the knight at a distance his use faded on the battlefield.
Whether it is carrying armour-clad knights into battle, hauling iron ploughs through fields of thick English mud, greasing the wheels of the Industrial Revolution or dragging artillery guns during both world wars, shire horses have played a pivotal role in Britain's history for 1,000 years.
But many of the country's finest draught breeds could be extinct within a generation following a dramatic drop in the number of people willing to breed them, experts predict.
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) announced yesterday that the number of draught horses in the UK is dwindling every year as breeders turn away from heavy horses to cheaper and less resource-hungry breeds.
Clydesdales, with ancestors stretching back to the 19th century when the Sixth Duke of Hamilton began cross-breeding his local horses with Dutch stallions, are now on the RBST's "vulnerable" list.
Shires – Britain's best-known working breed – are said to be "at risk".
The Suffolk punch, a muscled draught horse from East Anglia, is fast nearing extinction and is on the "critical" list with just 100 pedigree pairs left, making it officially rarer than the giant panda.
But unlike the panda, which conservationists and governments alike have spent millions on, little money is being put towards halting the decline of Britain's draught horses.
Tractors and mechanised farming have unsurprisingly taken their toll on the number of working horses needed for the kind of exertion they were once bred for. Heavy horses dominated British farming as a cheap and reliable source of power even during and after the Industrial Revolution. Only with the invention of the tractor were they eventually sidelined.
What particularly worries conservationists is how quickly the remaining populations of draught horses have tumbled during the past decade. In 1998 there were approximately 6,000 heavy horses left in Britain but now their numbers have almost halved to around 3,500.
The main problem is the lack of suitable breeding mare. The UK Shire Horse Society estimates that up to 300 female shire horses of breeding age are needed every year to replace old stock but only around 200 are available most years. Dawn Teverson, head of conservation at the RBST, said: "Heavy horses are so large that most normal people with normal levels of resources cannot look after them. They have to be really committed and it is a big responsibility."
The light cavalry lasted a bit longer, but it was mainly used for scouting and reconnaissance. World War I saw the end of that use, although the US tried to revive it between the World Wars.
Tanks became the equivalent of the heavy cavalry and planes became the equivalent of the light cavalry and were able to restore some balance to the battlefield that had been lost when the machinery of warfare had allowed the repeating rifle and machine gun to dominate which too place from the US Civil War to World War I.
Evolution of machinery and mans uses have destined the war horse for decline, but as long as there is Budweiser, there will be a market for a few.