Two utility horses actors of resilience in the Forest of Saint-Michel-Freyr

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giving free rein to nature, giving nature back to nature by controlling its issues and its actors; this was the ambition of Éric Domb, Founder of Pairi Daiza, when he proposed this vision in 2016 to the Commune of Nassogne, when hunting rights for communal forests expired. The Foundation presented a management plan to convince the entire city council, but the resulting hunting and forestry issues defeated the ambitions of the Brugelette businessman and his treasurer.



No matter, it was enough for the Minister of Forestry at the time to see through this offer, an opportunity not to be missed. Thus, in June 2018, the Nature and Forest department of the Walloon region and the Pairi Daiza Foundation joined forces to jointly ensure the contemporary management of the Saint-Michel-Freyr State Forest, in the heart of the Saint Hubert Forest. This project was called “Nassonia”. The challenges are threefold: designing forest management that takes climate challenges into account, promoting biodiversity and strengthening ecosystems. And it was necessary to admit a reasoned presence of the public. A well-designed and solidly anchored initiative to reconsider the rational management of this forest, which must recover its biodiversity and adapt to climate change, integrating socio-economic dimensions.

Specifications

It is in this context that the specifications for this scorching summer of 2022 were drawn up. The objective is to cut at a height of 20 cm and using horsepower, two areas (90 and 40 ares) of molinies to find, in time, the heath of original calluna. Cut waste should be bandaged around cut areas or in ditches that cross areas.

Molinia is an imposing grass that can reach more than one meter in height and which forms touradons, a kind of tufts shaped like a large hedgehog at its base. This invasive herbaceous plant deprives the calluna of the sun’s rays, thus hindering its development and multiplication.

Calluna is an evergreen subshrub that can reach 20 to 50 cm in height. It belongs to the same family as heather, to which it is very similar. The plant is of ecological interest as it is a priority habitat for many pollinating insects. In winter, calluna is a food source of choice for deer.

Laurent Namotte, an experienced leader in various utility horse shows.

A demanding project for an experienced leader

The site’s challenges are multiple and considerable. The terrain in the areas to be mown is very rough with touradons, those clumps of molinia that shake the leader sitting on the horse-drawn machines. For horses, the step is difficult and the pasterns are constantly twisting. The height of the molinie, from 60 to 80 cm, makes the ground almost invisible to the coachman, and the relief, sometimes changing suddenly, causes shocks to the coachman’s back and the horses’ shoulders.

Laurent Namotte, provider of complementary services, to whom the project was awarded, knows this type of difficult situation well. Used, among other things, to limit the eagle fern in the forests of his region (Bertrix) with suitable equipment (forehead and fern roller), Laurent experiences the lack of visibility caused by the invasive ferns that often reach the horses’ backs. “Here at Mochamps, the small diameter of the cutter’s wheels makes it impossible to climb over the compact clods of molinie. The machine vibrates constantly and the back is hit”, explains Laurent, who adds: “Working with the seeder equipped with large metal wheels is relatively more comfortable and faster”.

.Balking of cutting waste.
.Balking of cutting waste.

Alone we go faster, together we go further

After Laurent has collected the equipment and made the adjustments, Betsy, the Ardennes draft mare, opens the room by moving the cutting mechanism. The cutter is a good size; 1.20 meter blade; this is enough because plant material builds up very quickly on the knives. Laurent must force himself to stopregularly to unclog the machine. Brave down the line, Betsy responds present and doesn’t hesitate to give it a try. The horse must ensure a sustained pace on uneven terrain and the rider, shaken, redoubles his vigilance to preserve the team. Laurent holds his breath.

From the cattle truck, Lightning shows her impatience by stamping her feet on the ground. Norman Cob won’t take long to relay his helper. An hour later, the industrious Norman is hitched to the mower and shows equal efficiency at work.

Laurent Namotte had anticipated: the required deadline for the venue and the summer heat wave forced him to plan very short days in advance. No more making the horses work in the heat and having to switch them on stretchers. “One of the two cutting areas was easier to work with because the ground there was more accessible with a lot less bullfighting,” Laurent explained to me. Windrowing was also relatively more comfortable and faster. On this subject, Laurent specifies: “The ideal machine would be the one equipped with a seat at the back of the factory, and not at the front, to see the work done”.

Philippe Moës, forestry manager at the site, testifies to his satisfaction with the work carried out: “The expected objectives were fully met: the horses preserved the soil and biodiversity. The cutting height was respected, which will allow the development of the calluna. “.“ In these sensitive environments of the Natura 2000 zone, we also consider sustainable, environmentally friendly management with minimal use of fossil energy. The horse has its place here”, he adds.

On this site not without pitfalls, the experienced leader thwarted the tricks and scrupulously adhered to the specifications. The director is satisfied with the result obtained and the Utility Horse has demonstrated its added value as an actor in the preservation of natural environments.

Valere Marchand

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