For the past two weekends we were invited back to Airfield a unique urban farm in Dublin to plough and reseed 3 acres of old pasture in Murray's Field.
The pasture is being reseeded with a lot more clover so it will need less fertiliser, and was last ploughed by me in 1986 when I was farm manager there, when I planted beet in that field.
Being under grass for so long meant the sod was tough and the ground conditions were dry and stoney so we had our work cut out for us, not only to carry out the work but also to demonstrate to the public the ancient art of ploughing so rarely seen these days.
Traditionally one man had to be able to plough an acre a day or he was not considered worthy of hire. The same reason the field must be ploughed in straight lines- this is the most economical use of labour. The skill is that this task should be done by one man alone with two horses.
Ploughing with horses is not a matter of brute strength as the plough must be held light in the hands (which are needed to hold the reins to direct the horses), the ploughman is there to balance the plough, only applying force at the headlands to swing the plough across the grass, and to hold it down when it strikes a stone making it veer off it's line.
I used a Ransome plough made in England about 60 to 70 years ago which had an additional bar fixed above it on one side to give the option of attaching an extra stabilising wheel when ploughing across the sides of steep hills- this was not needed in Airfield.
Airfield was always a commercial dairy and tillage farm and is unique in that it was always farmed by horse power right up until the death of the last Overend sister Naomi in 1993.
The pleasure children took in having hands on contact with heavy horses (the above group from Sacred Heart Senior National School in Killinarden at the foot of the Dublin Mountains) was evident throughout our recent visit, and very much fulfils Miss Overend's final wish that Airfield's house, gardens and farm should be kept as a working farm for the enjoyment of the residents of Dundrum and the education of the children of Dublin.
What makes this unique place work so well is in how it allows adults and children alike get close enough to ask us about the farmwork we were doing - all right in the heart of a city.
Many were surprised to hear that to plough an acre a day with horses means the ploughman has to walk 11 miles behind the plough, something no modern farmer has to do anymore when driving a tractor - which ploughs up far more ground than the single narrow strip of sod called a 'scrape' that the horse plough does.
'How does the plough do this?' asked one girl keen to understand the mechanics of what was occuring, as the green grass field slowly, strip by narrow strip, was turning to brown soil before her eyes - and while we were looking for a way to describe how any plough works by turning the long strips of sod over, she answered her own question herself-
' It turns the grass sod across the field like the pages of a book turning from cover to cover'
Proof that our efforts were not in vain.
After turning over the sod with the plough we broke it up into smaller bits of earth with harrows which is a frame of metal spikes that act like a giant rake.
Then walking over every foot of ground using a 'seed fiddle' the grass seed was shaken across the land. This works by pushing a stick with a string tied to it (like the bow of a fiddle) which spins a metal wheel causing seed to be spread evenly across two yards of ground at a time.
The big difference in working land with horses as opposed to using a tractor is that not only is there less compaction of the soil but the horseman having to walk the ground gets an intimate understanding of the land he is farming.
Despite the advanced technology of farming with tractors, the tractor driver locked away in the cosy cab sees little, hears less and feels almost nothing. Though he does get more work done - it is at a cost- he is deprived from getting the feel of the land he is working.
Photo; John Kent
So though horse work is physically much harder than tractor work it brings an understanding of the land that comes only from hands on contact.
For more about this unique place click on Airfield
or go to the archive and open 2008 'Airfield Farm', 2009 'Heavy Horse heritage'.