In a magazine last month I read an article about the impact of poo-picking on the population of dung beetles. I guess ultimately, there is going to be a counter argument for not poo-picking, and dung beetles are as good an argument as any.
The result of this article was that I spent a bit of time thinking about ecology. It`s obvious really, that as soon as we keep horses in an unnatural way there will be an impact on the local environment. In the wild horses cover a vast area whilst grazing, which means their droppings are scattered over a wide area, and so the dung beetle population eats down the droppings quickly and the grass regenerates before the horse has a demand of it. So the population of dung beetles is happy, and the horse is happy. The eco-system is balanced. In the smaller paddocks that we keep our horses in there is a higher density of droppings, which will impact the growth of the grass because the horse has need of it before it has recovered. That is, if we don’t poo pick. However, if we do poo pick, the dung beetles don`t get a look in so the population diminishes, and then if we do leave droppings for a day or two they aren`t attacked by dung beetles so the grass is more likely to become sour and stale.
With the same theory, equestrians` obsession with pulling up ragwort and eradicating it from the land must have an impact on whatever creatures eat the yellow flowered plant. Not that I`m saying we should let ragwort take over our paddocks, it`s just food for thought. I was busy in Otis`s paddock today, clearing up the dock leaves that have died as a result of being sprayed a fortnight ago, and pulling up the tallest of buttercups. Eradicating all the buttercups will unbalance the eco-system, but at the same time buttercups are a skin irritant to horses so I don`t want Otis to be exposed to too many. So I plumped myself in the middle and just pulled up the largest of plants. Unfortunately, all the dock leaves have to come up because the large leaves hinder grass growth. There are still plenty of dock leaves on the other side of the fence.
Going back to dung beetles and droppings. In a large field where poo picking is impractical there is likely to be a healthy population of dung beetles, but also so long as the field is not overpopulated by horses, the large area will be rested naturally. Horses will avoid the well-eaten patches, and soiled areas until the grass has grown and the droppings destroyed. The grassland care almost takes care of itself and harrowing every so often will help break the droppings up, and of course reduce any worm burden on the field.
However, in our smaller paddocks there isn`t enough space for a horse to naturally rest areas, and the higher density of droppings means that grass cannot recover without our help. But if we are obsessed with poo-picking then the dung beetle population is damaged. So what should we do? Perhaps we should just cut down on the amount of poo picking we do, so that droppings are left in the paddock for a bit longer thus allowing the dung beetles to feast before we remove them. Maybe that means that instead of poo-picking twice daily you do it once a day, or you don’t go back for that pellet that fell off your wheelbarrow on the way to the gate. I for one don`t want hundreds of droppings in Otis`s field because they attract flies and he suffers from sweet itch.
I`m not really sure what the answer is to be honest, but it`s definitely something to think about when we plan our grassland care. What will the impact on the local eco-system of removing all the clover or buttercups, or other green weeds from the field be? It`s a balancing act between keeping our horses happy and healthy and not upsetting the eco-system for future generations.