SUSTAINABILITY, we hear it everywhere but it’s not always clear exactly what it means and how it manifests in the working equine industry. From paddocks to gallops, livery yards to racecourses, the sustainability of our equine industry is dependent on our environment.
In simplest terms, sustainability consists of fulfilling the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations, while ensuring a balance between economic growth, environmental care and social well-being. The best way to understand how it can work in our industry is to look at it in action, at how the people in the equine industry in Ireland and further afield are applying sustainable methodologies to breeding, producing and competing horses.
The racecourse environment: biodiversity, water and plastic
PUNCHESTOWN Racecourse is a good example of sustainability in action, communications manager Shona Dreaper told The Irish Field about some of their initiatives already well under way, including the Bee Sound biodiversity project: “The Bee Sound Project is something we run during the pollinator season whereby suitable sections of the site are left during the appropriate time frame to be as pollinator friendly as possible. We put signage in place to highlight the effort, to ring fence the area and to make others aware and hopefully inspire them to do similar regardless of their garden size.
Tree planting is part of a long-term strategy. At the moment we are completing our track extension project which came with its own sustainability aspects like preservation of wetlands and creation of our own reservoirs. We also work closely with our catering teams to deliver sustainable solutions like biodegradable cups and cutlery. No more plastic straws and single use plastic cups. Also, we engage locally and seasonably sourced ingredients wherever possible.
Punchestown is a massive site and where we can we have upgraded a majority of light fittings to low energy LED, reducing cost and increasing efficiency. There is a long-term strategy at play that involves partners, suppliers and contractors.”
Whether irrigating to maintain safe racing and training ground, caring for horses, food production, catering facilities or for sanitation – water is central to racing’s day-to-day operations. According to a recent British horse racing industry report, horse racing is the leisure industry’s third largest consumer of water.
Several British racecourses already have access to on-site boreholes (water wells to naturally occurring water) and reservoirs. One racecourse draws 100% of its water from these sources, with no dependence on mains supply. Ascot Racecourse has created a circular water system, which harvests rainwater from its roof to feed into the reservoir - improving self-sufficiency.
The farm environment: waste, grazing, forage and soil
RIGHTLY or wrongly, farmers have had huge pressure on them to work towards lowering carbon output. As we have seen through the Common Agricultural Policy, farmers are being incentivised to reduce their carbon footprint through various grant schemes.
In Britain in 2021, the Racing Foundation and the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association published The Environmental Impact of Stud Farms Assessment which indicated that low-impact grassland farms such as studs, have a lower environmental impact than arable or livestock farms.
So we’re starting better than most when it comes to our place in a sustainable world.
Horses produce on average 50 pounds of manure each day. The storage and removal of equine waste materials presents operational and financial challenges for studs, racecourses and yards.
I recently discovered that my local mushroom factory, Monaghan Mushrooms, plays its part in recycling horse manure and champion staying hurdler Paisley Park’s breeder Micheál Conaghan has been passing on his muck heap to them for years.
It could be worth checking with your local mushroom growers to see if they need horse manure or a local compost company - muck to brass and all that!.
Coolmore Stud and Kildangan Studs are among the businesses operating with sustainability in mind. Both utilise on-site compost production to reduce chemical fertilisers and recycle what comes naturally to horses.
There are also companies such as Kildare-based Equiskips who can provide muck heap removal where manure is collected in a skip they provide and is then collected and composted or very helpful on-site composting.
In recent years Kildangan Stud has initiated a range of environmental diversity and sustainability projects. These include a pollinator programme with beehives and rewilding of grass areas using native wildflower seedings. Farm manager Brian Heffernan told The Irish Field on a tour of the stud’s initiatives: “There’s a corner of every farm you can let go. It’s a mindset. We’re so used to straight lines, as long as we explain to people that biodiversity is the way forward, if we all cut down carbon emissions by 5-10% it’s a lot, 30% it’s huge.”
Kildangn also utilise beef cattle and their role in pasture management, plus hedge management, reed beds, willow crops and water harvesting. Kildangan also installed EV charging points on site and have plans to migrate to an EV fleet.
John Corbett who runs the 7,000 acres of sustainable agriculture at Coolmore, acknowledges that environmental welfare comes into everything at Coolmore. Clean water, fresh air, healthy fertile soils, biodiversity and a vibrant ecosystem are the five most significant areas for the Coolmore farm. Responsible farming is incredibly important to Coolmore and at the heart of everything they do.
As part of their grassland management plan, they aim to encourage grass growth by eliminating environmental factors which may impact negatively. Corbett describes the Coolmore method as ‘extensive not intensive’ farming. Stock numbers are kept low in terms of head per acre and all organic matters are treated to stabilise nitrogen, Coolmore employ all possible technologies to reduce emissions. As well as technologies, diversity is used as a powerful tool and the Coolmore team are constantly planting hedges and trees to sequester carbon.
Not all of us are farming on the Coolmore and Kildangan scale, but many of the methods are wholly scalable. There are many ways for equine farmers to increase biodiversity on their farms including cutting hedges every two years instead of annually, planting hedging which provides excellent ecosystems and also sequesters carbon both above and below the ground. Planting wild-flower seed on unused areas and removing weeds such as ragwort by hand, rather than strimming every inch.
Bedding and Feed
Shavings may be the equestrian’s favourite bedding but straw is a by-product and is more environmentally gentle. The wood for shavings has usually travelled huge distances. Plus there’s the plastic shavings bales come in.
When it comes to feeding horses, fodder uses a lot of energy. This energy could eventually be obtained sustainably from a farm’s own hydropower plants or wind turbines. In terms of grazing, a rotational system is the recommended system for a more sustainable plan, no matter the scale. Dividing paddocks to graze them and rotating works best, with sheep or cattle grazing between rotations to take out rough grass, weeds and to add fertiliser.
Hard feed is a tricky one, we can all lobby our feed companies to use recyclable bags, many do, but it is the soya content which is proving the most controversial as much of it comes from Brazil or Argentina. The bulk of soya is grown in South America at the expense of the forests.
There are feed companies who try to source feed ingredients more locally, which promotes sustainability as this strengthens the regional economy and saves on kilometres driven, but like with many things, the power is with the consumer to make the point with their purse.
The problem of plastic is a huge one for haylage. An eco-friendly wrap is believed to be one of the most essential breakthroughs in the farming sector as a whole. There are companies in the southern hemisphere who already sell a recyclable biowrap and an Austrian company offers bale wrapping made using electricity from 100% renewable energy sources.
Closer to home, three students from Kilkee Community College in Co Clare - Fionn Doherty, Ciarán Bonfil and Feargal Keane - explored whether biodegradable and edible bale netting made from hemp could be more eco-friendly than plastic netting. Let’s hope it’s just a matter of time before a permanent solution to the blight of bale wrap is found.
Hard plastics can cause problems too of course, as well as bottles and disposable cutlery, there is an estimated 160 miles of white plastic running rail in use across UK racecourses, possibly more in Ireland. The good news is that Duralock, which develops and supplies plastic railings and obstacle wings to racecourses, has created a recyclable product, itself made from 80% recycled material.
Yard and riding products
Long-established companies are focusing on the issue of sustainability and more emphasis is being placed on ingredients, production methods and the durability of products. There are now horse rugs made from recycled bottles such as Horseware’s Future collection and Weatherbeeta’s Green-Tec range, equestrian clothing made from sustainable sources from the likes of Equieire and The Chestnut Collection which are home to equestrian and country wear products with sustainability at their heart.
Grooming products contain a lot of chemicals, harmful to the environment, but also to the horse’s skin. Most are filled in plastic bottles that are not recyclable.
Whether you’re running a stud farm, you’re an equestrian buying a horse rug or a racecourse manager purchasing track fencing, ultimately it’s your choice whether you invest in more than just the product, but also in a more positive future for us all.