Statistical Survey of the County of Clare, 1808

By Hely Dutton

Chapter II - Section 3

Use of Oxen, and how harnessed

OXEN are not much used in husbandary; they are thought not to step quick enough, especially to meet the hurry of spring work; I am convinced this partly proceeds from not selecting them; large and strong-boned oxen are usually sought after for this purpose, without once considering, that heavy beasts of every kind are unfit for work, that requires dispatch; if, on the contrary, middle-sized oxen (and whose activity of step was previously ascertained) were selected, this objection would have little weight. This difference of step seems to be wholly disregarded by farmers, and, when young oxen are to be broke into the draft, the selection is usually committed to a bigoted ignorant ploughman, who generally chooses the largest, because he thinks strength the only thing necessary; another thing materially injures the step of oxen, the laziness of both ploughman and driver.

A strong corroboration of what is before advanced, occurred at the ploughing match of the Farming Society of Ireland, at Huntstown, in March 1805; the Rev. Mr. Symes of Ballyarthur, in the county of Wicklow, obtained the premium and cup for the best ploughing from several competitors; it was performed by two small spayed heifers, who beat several pair of very fine horses in quickness of step, and, contrary to the general idea, that oxen, if quick steppers, are apt to be blown or lose their wind, these were as little affected at the conclusion as the best horses in the field. Another instance of their equality with horses occurred at the ploughing match at Mr. Shaw’s at Terrenure; two beasts did their work equal to the best pair of horses in the field. Sometimes oxen, and horses or mules, are united in a plough; but of all the preposterous customs, which time and ignorance have sanctioned, this seems to be the greatest; frequently a large sluggish ox is coupled to a young spirited quick-stepped horse or mule; at first the horse exhausts his strength, but at length, finding his advantage in becoming as lazy as the ox, he ever after retains the slow step, as may be seen in every part of Ireland, where the loss, by the disgusting snail’s pace of both ploughman and horses, is a very heavy drawback on the profits of farming, and is the cause of great injury in spring to those horses, who are beat into a quickness of step they have not been used to, and are frequently killed by their cruel masters.

The question so often and so long before the public, whether the use of horses or oxen is more economical for agricultural work, remains still undecided. The advocates for horses contend, that, though they cost more to purchase, require better keeping, eat more than oxen, and are of infinitely less value, if injured, or when past their labour, yet the superior agility of their motions, enabling them to perform a greater quantity of work, more than counterbalances the low price, cheaper keeping, and superior value of the ox when past his labour. The comparison has probably never been fairly made; it has been almost always between large sluggish oxen, ill fed, and middle-sized quick-stepped horses, fed with oats twice or three times a day. What farmer ever thought, when he went to a fair to buy a team of oxen, of making them step out before him? He only looks to those, who are likely to grow to a large size, and who have plenty of bone in their legs, without once considering whether they move fast or slow; on the contrary, if he wishes to purchase horses, they are made to go through all their movements, and rejected if their step is sluggish; no wonder, therefore, that oxen are more slow in their motions; but put a pair of those lubberly, heavy-legged, black horses, that were lately most injudiciously attempted to be introduced from Leicestershire, by the side of Mr. Syme’s heifers for a day’s ploughing against time, and a more forcible light will be thrown on the subject, than by any thing I could say. The proper feeding of working oxen is generally most shamefully neglected, and falls most deservedly on the hard-hearted niggard his owner: if they get hay, they are generally thought to be uncommonly well fed; no wonder, therefore, that they are slow in their movements. What sort of step, and for what continuance, would horses have, if fed in spring with hay alone? I have seen, at a very celebrated seat near Dublin, oxen fattening for the Farming Society’s shew, pampered with every vegetable delicacy modern agriculture could produce; within a few yards stood a team of miserable creatures, nothing but skin and bone; they frequently lay down whilst at work in the plough; not a potatoe, cabbage, or carrot was thrown to these poor animals, nothing but indifferent hay, the refuse of the fattening cattle; the steward, an Irish Englishman, "know’d all the English practices, aye that he did, know’d oxen never would stand it, not they, and he told master so, that he did, but master would have his way, and now he seed the consequence." The consequence of this ignorance and prejudice was, that, instead of turning them out when the spring work was finished in May, in good store order, which they would have been if well fed, besides doing twice the quantity of work, they were obliged to be kept over another year to fatten, before they were fit for Dublin market; and, as the land was worth at least six pounds per acre, they cost upwards of twenty pounds each to make them fat, and this without any green winter feeding.

To make the comparison fairly, the feeding should be alike; if they get Swedish turnip, potatoes, or bruised furze, it must not be understood to mean, that they will be able to perform hard spring work without a portion of corn, but they ought certainly to make a considerable part of their food. Mr. Young, in his most excellent Farmer’s Kalendar, p. 263, says, "Swedish turnip is, next to carrots, the very best food, that can be given to horses."

Oxen are not so liable to accidents as horses, nor to be ridden by lazy or vicious servants; where one beast only is kept, a horse will be always found most useful, but, where many are necessary, some of each sort will probably be found most economical. Michael Blood, Esq. when living at Roxton, formerly tried oxen, but imagined they were constantly lame from gravel getting between their claws. William Burton, Esq. of Clifden, has used oxen in all kinds of work, and found them to stand well on their legs, and always in good order.

The Earl of Egremont, who uses oxen entirely, allows his English tenants three per cent. of their annual rent, if they conform to his example. How praise-worthy would some premiums for the improvement of the agriculture of his numerous tenantry in this county be? Surely they have a right to expect some encouragement, to compensate them for his total absence; it is certain there are no tenants in this county, whose agriculture wants the fostering hand of a landlord more; deterioration may be found with them in great perfection; and even middlemen, who enjoy large incomes under him, are so far from setting a good example, that they are usually the very worst kind of tenant an absentee can have, and the greatest tyrants to cottier tenants. I shall have occasion to say more of these gentlemen in another place. Oxen are now in many places guided by a ring in the nose; this always remains, and does not in the least prevent his feeding. Collars are also used by many, but the barbarous custom of working these poor creatures in yokes and bows is still continued.

In Tradree a good many oxen are used, but generally in yokes.

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