The Foxearth and District Local History Society

No Beasts for draught but Oxen

A collection of two articles, the first contemporary, giving a fascinating insight of the use of Oxen for working farms, and the second from the mid eighteenth century arguing eloquently for the use of Oxen in preference to horses on farms

The Living Tractor

Michael Williams

Long before horses, steam engines and tractors, the ox was the power source of choice for ploughing and cultivations. Retired farmer Michael Williams celebrates an important but neglected figure in the development of British farming. "Oxen were slow, but when there was a need to overcome inertia, they pulled with a resolute and steady strength until things started to move again"

Reprinted with permission from Farmers Weekly September 17th 2004

FOR TWO thousand years and more, oxen (or bullocks) were the main beasts of burden on British farms and roads. Then, in the 40 years from 1800 to 1840, they all but disappeared - hustled into history by social reforms, industrialisation and a growing need for speed.

Moreover, because William Fox Talbot did not perfect his negative-positive photographic process until the 1840s, very few photographs now exist to remind us just how widespread the use of oxen was in the British countryside. In terms of sheer muscle power, an ox was generally considered to be half as strong as a good horse, though two oxen could take on any single horse. Oxen also had the advantage of being more robust than horses, less likely to get injured, and when times got bad they could survive on simply dreadful food - dodgy straw and mouldy hay of a type that no horse would touch. At the end of their working life oxen also made good beef - after a few months in a fattening pen.

DOCILE Cattle were not specifically bred as work animals, but farmers and carters were always on the lookout for big, strong, docile bullocks which could be broken to harness rather than sent to the butcher. When large droves of cattle were being walked to English markets from Wales and Scotland there was a good source of potential working oxen. After weeks or months on the road, such animals were lean and fit, while daily close contact with drovers and their dogs had usually got rid of that skittishness so prevalent among young cattle. Oxen usually worked in pairs and animals had to be carefully matched for size, strength and especially for height.

The power of a working horse is transmitted via a padded collar and body harness, but oxen achieved this via a heavy wooden collar or yoke, which fitted on top of the neck and in front of the shoulders. That yoke was then held in place by an ox-bow, which curved around under the beast's neck.

Once a pair was selected they became each other's companions for life, working side-by-side and never far apart whether grazing in meadows or sleeping in the ox barn. Each ox had a name and within the pair one had a single syllable name and one had a longer name. So Quick and Nimble, Pert and Lively, Hawk and Pheasant all spent their working lives together.

Working cattle had to be shod and, since they had cloven hooves, that involved fitting two half-moon shaped iron shoes or "cues" to each foot.

Cattle are disinclined or unable to stand on three legs while a farrier fixes shoes to the fourth foot, so an ox-shoeing process was somewhat rough. First the beast was thrown to the ground, then someone sat on its neck to stop it getting up again, while the ox man and others tied all four feet to a large wooden tripod which the farrier carried with him. Once all feet had been trimmed and new shoes nailed in place, the ox was released.

It was the Enclosures Act of 1801, and with it the demise of a medieval open-fields approach to farming, that started a rapid decline in the use of oxen as beasts of burden. On the land a team of six or eight great beasts harnessed in pairs one behind the other was just too unwieldy to plough or harrow into corners of the new, smaller fields, but two or three horses harnessed side by side could do so with ease. Before long new-fangled steam traction engines were appearing on the scene, each with the power of a dozen horses or twice that number of oxen.

On the roads, ox wagons continued to plod their way across the countryside for quite a few more years and still dominated the road-going heavy-haulage end of the transport market. But in the 1830s railway mania gripped Britain. Suddenly it was possible for coal, iron, wood, grain and other bulky materials to be transported at 30mph by rail instead of 0.3mph via wagons or canal barge.

This was terrible news for carters with their ox wagons, and equally disagreeable for stage-coach companies, which found themselves being run off the roads one by one whenever a railway opened and duplicated one of their routes. By 1850 working oxen had all, but disappeared from Britain. However, when a traction engine got stranded in a ditch or a horse-drawn load got well and truly bogged down or a steam engine came off the rails, a team of oxen (if one could be found) was the preferred solution to the problem.

Oxen were slow, but when there was a need to overcome inertia, they pulled with a resolute and steady strength until things started to move again. Horses, by comparison, relied upon a jerking action, which was often less effective. So, when next you plough up what looks like a rusty and broken horseshoe, take a closer look. It could be the shoe of an ox which was working on that very spot hundreds of years ago.

Oxen ploughing, from an 11th century manuscript

Farm Oxen

from: THE GENTLEMAN FARMER Being an Attempt to Improve Agriculture, by subjecting it to the Text of Rational Principles KAMES, H.H , pr. for W. Creech, 1776

Lord Kames was a prolific writer, credited as being one of the principal figures of the "Scottish Enlightenment,". The 'Gentleman Farmer' attempts to improve agriculture by subjecting practices to reason and scientific thought. Kames was born at Eccles, Berwickshire, in 1696 to an impoverished family estate which only allowed him to be privately educated. In 1712 he was indentured to a Writer to the Signet and eleven years later he was called to the Bar, and became Judge of the Court of Session in 1752, Lord Justiciary in 1763. He died in 1782. Kames sought to base his work upon his own experiences, and writing the book for landlords as they were the ones with the resources and the profit interest to follow his recommendations. Apparently he was right: the work went through six editions by 1815. His ideas were popular both in England and America. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both owned copies

There is not any other improvement that equals the using of oxen instead of horses. They are equally tractable and they are fed and maintained at much less expense. As this improvement is obvious to the meanest capacity, one might expect to see every farmer greedily embracing it as he would a beast after being famished.

Men are led in chains by custom and fettered against their better interests. "Why should we pretend to be better than our fathers?" they will say modestly.

What warms me to this subject is the great consumption of oats by workhorses, which would be totally saved by using oxen. Did our own product furnish this consumption, it were less to be regretted, but is grievous to be reduced to the necessity of importing annually vast quantities of oats all of which would be saved by employing oxen only on the farm.

But that I may not be accused of declaiming without foundation, I am willing to enter into a candid comparison between horses and oxen. I begin with affirming that an ox is as tractable as a horse and as easily trained to a plough or a cart. I have seen a couple of them in a plough going on sweetly without a driver as a couple of horses, directed by the voice alone without a rein. Oxen beside are preferable for a steady draught as they always pull to their strength without flinching, horses on the contrary are apt to stop when they meet with unexpected resistance. As oxen have less air and spirit in moving than horses their motion is concluded to be slower. They are less expeditious than horse in galloping or trotting it is true but as farm work is performed in stepping, let the step of an ox and a horse be compared and the ox will be found not to be inferior especially where an ox is harnessed like a horse.

Colonel Pool in Derbyshire plows as much ground in a day with three oxen as neighbouring farmers do with four or five horses. In summer they eat nothing but grass, in winter they have hay and turnips when much wrought, straw only when wrought moderately. About Bawtry in Yorkshire, four oxen in a plough do as much as the same number of horses. In several parts of Kent, an acre is daily plowed with a team of oxen, sometimes a quarter more. Near Beconsfield, Mr Burke plows an acre in a day with four oxen and his neighbours do no more with four horses. In the road from Leeds to Wetherby, I saw a loaded cart drawn by two stout horses and a bull, all in a line, the bull in the middle. That draught was not slower than those before or after in the same road, and surely the bull would not have been added had it retarded the horses.

In the road from Leeds to Wetherby, I saw a loaded cart drawn by two stout horses and a bull, all in a line, the bull in the middle. That draught was not slower than those before or after in the same road, and surely the bull would not have been added had it retarded the horses.

Hitherto the comparison holds pretty equal, in one article oxen are clearly preferable, their dung makes excellent manure and by that they improve pasture, horses dung on the contrary burns where it falls and hurts the pasture. Horse dung from the stable has a greater tendency to burn than rot and to make it useful it requires to be carefully mixed with cooler materials.

But the chief advantage from oxen comes under the article of savings which branch out into many particulars, in the first place the price of a horse fit for labour doubles that of an ox, an ox worth seven pounds will perform as much solid work as a horse worth fourteen. This is an important article, the labouring cattle are the most expensive part of farm and it is that expence which keeps back from the farming many men whose skill and industry would afford them a comfortable living. In that view it is greatly the interests of the landlord to promote oxen as they tend to multiply candidates for a farm, which not only gives the landlord an opportunity for a proper choice but raises every farm to it's just value. As an ox is cheaper than a horse so he is fed cheaper in proportion, he requires no corn and he works to perfection on cut grass in the summer and hay in the winter, he does well even out of oat straw. Thus by using oxen a farmer can make money out of his whole crop of oats except what is necessary for his own family. The bulk of that crop is consumed by farm horses, even in the Carfe of Gowry the consumption of oats that at Perth and Dundee there are annually imported are between four and five hundred bolls of oatmeal.

A horse is liable to so many diseases that an ox is free from, if he happens to turn lame of which he is subjected from many accidents, he is rendered useless where an ox can always be turned to account if disabled from work he can be fattened for the shambles and sold for more than was paid for him. A horse commonly turns useless for work at ten years and the stock of horses must be renewed every ten years at a medium which is a deep article of expence to every farmer. Oxen last for ever or what comes to the same they can be sold to the butcher when past the vigour of work and the price will be more than sufficient to put young oxen in their stead.

Horses require more attention than oxen, they must be curried, combed and rubbed down. Let oxen have their proper quantity of food and they require no other care. It is sufficient employment for a man to manage four or five horses, he will manage with equal ease double the amount of oxen. The shoeing of a horse is no inconsiderable expence, the expence of shoeing an oxen is a mere trifle.

These several articles of saving are summed up and are very considerable to the landlord, the tenant has no claim for any share as he has had as much profit as formerly had when he wrought with horses.

By this mode of husbandry the advantage to the landlord is great and to the kingdom much greater by saving the importation of immense quantities of oats. There must be a great increase of oxen to answer the purposes of farming, every one of these after their prime is over, they go to the shambles, the markets there are filled with beef which not only lowers the price of beef, but of leather and tallow, the savings upon these articles would bring down the wages of our manufacturers not to mention that cheap manufactures at home tend also to lower wages.

People differ in the manner of yoking oxen, in some places they are yoked by the tip of the horn, in some by the root. These modes are visibly inconvenient, when an ox draws by it's shoulders like a horse, his head is free

and his motion is natural, when yoked by the horns, he lowers his head to the line of draught, his posture is constrained and his step short, his neck is indeed strong but his shoulder is a better fulcrum for the draught.

To yoke an ox, the shoulder and his harness ought to be the same with that of a horse, the only difference is that his horns hinder the collar from being slipped over his head, it must be open below and buckled on afterwards it is on. The advantage of yoking an ox by the shoulder was known even in the time of Columella who says that fastening the yoke to the horns is rejected by most all who have written directions for husbandmen, for the cattle can by great effort exert more with the breasts than with horns.

When the advantage of oxen for draught are so great, it cannot but appear strange that in Britain oxen have been almost totally been laid aside.

Among the ancients we read of no beasts for draught but oxen. It was so in Greece as early as the days of Hesiod. The Dutch at the Cape of Good Hope plow with oxen and exercise them early to a quick pace so as to equal horses in the wagon as well as in the plow. They are used in the East Indies for carrying burdens and they are fitter than ever for that service, the back of an ox being convex and are able to support a weight more than a horse.

The only cause I can assign for preferring horses are bad roads which are universal in Britain till lately, being impracticable for carts during winter, the farmer carried his corn to market on horseback as proper furniture for the back of an ox was not thought of and horses being thought necessary for carrying burdens they were employed instead of oxen if employed at all as it was thought too expensive ever to suffer them to be idle. Because oxen require no corn it is thought commonly that they scarce require any food. They are put off during the winter with dry straw which after the turn of the year it affords little nourishment, they become too weak for working and yet instead of bettering their food it is vainly thought that multiplying their number will be the answer and thus will be seen in several places yoked in the plow, ten or twelve weak animals that can scarce support their own weight. We are now provided with good roads everywhere so there is now no longer the pretext of bad roads for preferring horses. Corn is now carried to market in carts for which oxen are no less proper than horses and it is hoped that farmers will at last break through a bad custom and open their eyes to a their own interest. Nothing is more deeply in their interest than to lay aside horses totally in their own interests and employ oxen. The tacksman profits first, but does not the landlord gains more by enabling his tenants to pay higher rent in new leases. Why then should gentlemen loiter when they could so easily advance their rent without oppressing their tenants by example and precept to follow a mode that is equally beneficial to themselves and to the country, it will be hard indeed if a single tenant cannot be found to see his own interest, if a landlord can prevail but upon one or two of his tenants to take the lead the rest will follow. At any rate he can force them to their own good by prohibiting horses in every new lease. It is a strange sort of ambition that moves gentlemen to spend their estates inthe House of Commons where most of them are mutes instead of serving their country and themselves at home which is genuine patriotism. A horse put to work at the age of five years may endure hard work for twelve years which is a large allowance beyond the truth, an ox is put to work at the age of four and at seven is in his prime which is the proper time to put him to the shambles.

The computation is accordingly framed upon a revolution of twelve years during which period oxen are changed four times without any change in horses and a new revolution goes on as before.

Columella Book 2. ch. 2. --advises the ploughmen to give his oxen a little rest at the end of every ridge and says "a longer ridge than one hundred and twenty feet is hurtful to the cattle by fatiguing more than they ought to be" . Oxen are more fatigued with heat than horses, which appears even in this cold country during the heat of the summer yet in the hottest countries oxen are preferred for labour, how much more in a cold country like Scotland, a yoke of oxen among old Romans commonly plowed a jugerum a day which is nearly equal to two thirds of an English acre, two English acres making there three jugera. Our Saxon ancestors had their bovata terre or ox gang which was fifteen acres, six of which made a plough-land, viz as much as six oxen can plow in a year.

* An ox light made and of middle size is all the fittest for the plough and in many places of Scotland such an ox may be purchased for under six pounds. But an ox reared on rich soil and gets plenty of food will at the same age draw a higher price.