Whins / gorse as cattle feed - time to look at it again?

Since moving to the north coast of Sutherland I’ve been interested in the prevalance of whins (Common Gorse - Ulex europaeus) and how it was used in the past. Apart of making wine (very good by the way) I have been intrigued as to its use as a feed. This article published sometime around 1917 is the best account I’ve found and goes into quite a lot of detail on tools and devices. The closing remarks I find quite apt as surely we should be looking to local resources for our livestock to reduce food miles, and in the face of recently soaring feed prices.

“This short historical survey, however, is sufficient to emphasise that in the whin crops of waste places there lies a plentiful, nourishing and cheap feeding stuff, the use of which is well worth serious considerations at the present time.”

We don’t have cattle or sheep on our croft but maybe one day if we do we can experiment with whins. With hedgetrimmers, brushcutters etc, I would think it would be fairly easy and cheap to figure out a modern way to process whins on a croft/farm scale and manage it on a 2 year coppice rotation? I’d be interested in folk’s thoughts and experiences…

From The Scotsman, c. 1917:

Whins as cattle-food in Scotland

So much is made at the present day of the advances and conquests of agricultural science that we are apt to give scant consideration to the methods of our forefathers, forgetting that in simpler times simpler methods sufficed, and that under the stress of the present new and hard conditions as much may possibly be gained by sympathetic examination of bygone systems as by the search for methods novel and untried. In a recent letter in the columns of The Scotsman (Feb 9, 1917), sir Herbert Maxwell has drawn attention to the use of whins as food for stock on the Continent and in the southern counties of England, but for a long period whins were extensively used as a feeding stuff in Scotland, and a short account of the methods employed in our own country for adapting this unpromising material for farm use may draw attention for the possibilities for this waste crop at the present day.

That, where the matter is left to their choice, stock often prefer whins to more usual pasture, is a fact of common observation. No better demonstration of this partiality could be had than on the headland above Port A Chasteil, between the fishing village of Portmahomack and Tarbatness, in Easter Ross, where the fresh growths of whin are so regularly and thoroughly cropped by sheep that the bushes never reach above two or three feet high, and are trimmed into a beehive shape with a neatness and precision that a professional gardener might well envy. Where a natural preference was shown there was little likelihood that farmers would find difficulty in using whins on a larger scale, should the need arise. Unfortunately the necessity frequently arose in the old days of recurring famine. The minister of the parish of Calder, in the counties of Nairn and Inverness, has put on record that “the situation of the parish in 1782 and 1783 was surely bad enough, though not so ill as in many places. The corns were not so much hurt by the frost, of course, the crop was better, and few of the cattle died, having been maintained chiefly on the tops of whins, cut and threshed, of which there are great quantities almost in every part of the parish.” But a more constant need than that of chance famine urged the farmers to make use of any available source of food. Oil-cake and artificial foods were unknown, and Scotland was slow in adopting the use of turnips and mangolds, which have proved invaluable winter foods. As a consequence early spring proved to be the most trying period of the year, for the winter supplies frequently became exhausted long before the new grass appeared. So grievous was the condition of things that, especially in late districts, the cattle were often too weak to rise from their stalls to gain the fresh grazings and the custom of “cattle-lifting” had to be resorted to - neighbouring farmers forming small bands which moved from farm to farm actually to carry the helpless cattle to the fields.

In their difficulty farmers turned to the evergreen whin. As early as 1725 a Scottish agriculturalist writes from London :- “The sowing of whins for feeding of cattle takes mightily about London now … This improvement comes from Wales, where it has been practised this hundred years.” There is no sign, however, that at this period the crop had “taken mightily” in Scotland, for a writer in the Scots Farmer of 1773 thinks it necessary to give “directions for the using of Heather and Whins, for the relief of Poor People in distress for Forage to their Bestial.” Regarding the whin, he says: - ”it is certain there is scarce any vegetable of which all gregarious animals are more fond, and prosper more remarkably upon the health or labour, when the tender crops are cut by gardener’s scissors, hooks, or short scythes, and bruised by flails, mills, or engines like wauk-mills, or heavy stones going round upon edge, as a common bark or oil mill, to clear them from prickles, and reduce them to a soft pulp, which is much facilitated by putting water frequently upon them. If the engine is worked by a small pony, a boy can drive him, and turn and water the whins; but it will require a man to cut them from the hedges or fields, who should have thick gloves or mitts made of horse leather to preserve his hands from being hurt by the prickles. These, with a very little hay or straw, twice a day, will supply eighteen or twenty large horses or cattle, and in better spirits, with but half the grain, than upon hay and full allowance of oats.”

Great faith was faced in the nutritive value of whins, and with some reason, as the following comparative analysis from an old manual from the practical farmer would indicate, -

                     Flesh-formers    Fat-formers

Furze… 3.21% 9.38%
Clover Hay… 4.27% 9.14%
Turnips (common) 1.80% 4.43%

Experience seems to have corroborated chemical analysis for in supplement to the account of the previous year, a farmer gives a short statement of his own success with whin fodder in the Scots Farmer of 1774: - ” I have had much experience of the benefit of this food; it is healthful, strengthening and gives them spirits; they are found of it, and eat it without inconvenience, the spines, which prick their mouth, being broken by the machine. I have kept nine or ten horses for some years past, in winter time, chiefly on this food…

The success of this experiment lead me to consider the great utility this plant may be of to poor people who live in the neighbourhood of large commons overgrown with it as good for cows in winter, when fodder is dear, and in reality, not so proper for milk cattle as this green food, which must naturally increase their milk, and from the fragrant smell it sent for while cutting, it may reasonably be conjectured, will give no ill taste to it, as many vegetables do.”
So useful was the whin diet for stock found to be that, in some parts of the country, fields, especially where the soil was light, were set aside for the whin crop. The seeds were sown in March, and the shoots became ready for use in the autumn of the following year. The original crop yielded forage for several years in succession. It was generally estimated that an acre would produce “two thousand faggots of green two year old gorse, weighing 20lbs each” and poor land yielded a crop valued at £16 an acre, while moderately good land has been know to year up to £40 an acre. I have no evidence however, that this method of cropping, common as it was in Wales and Southern England, was ever practised to any extent in Scotland. The comparative wildness of the northern country made it possible for farmers in most districts to be within easy reach of a waste ground whereon plenty of gorse was obtainable. But dependence on nature’s supply of whin forage led to distinct developments in Scottish agricultural industry. The fodder gathered from old whin bushes was tough and woody to a great extent, and lacked the tenderness and succulence of the artificial crop; it was besides armed with spines dangerous on account of their hardness to the comfort and health of the stock. Therefore methods had to be evolved for rendering the rough whins suitable for food.

The general trend of the development of whin crushing implements in Scotland is of some interest, if only for the fact that the process is now extinct, and has already all but reached the limbo of forgotten things. The earliest and simplest of the Scottish whin crushers that I have seen was a very interesting specimen on view in the Scottish historical section of the international exhibition at Glasgow, a few years ago - a simple water-worn boulder of an oval shape, convenient to be held by the narrow end in the hand, while the broad end was used, hammer wise, to bruise the whin shoots. On the smaller farms and crofts hand-bruising was found to meet the demand for quantity, and very simple methods were used. Usually a wooden mallet was employed, similar to that used to-day for driving in posts, but with a short handle; and the whins having been placed upon a flat stone or block of wood were hammered until reduced to a sufficiently fine pulp. A further improvement was introduced when one of the faces of the mallet was reinforced by a couple of steel blades crossing each other at right angles and projecting slightly from the surface. These served for chopping the gorse into short lengths, while the smooth face acted as a bruiser. In some places an ordinary flail was used, especially for pulping the younger shoots: While in others the end of the flail was reinforced with lengths of hoop-iron.

An instrument specially adapted for the purpose was the “whin-bruiser” or “rammer.” It was a heavy club shaped piece of wood, with a shank three feet eight inches in length, and a large bulging head which added weight. The flat base of the head was fitted with an iron framework consisting of parallel knife blades one inch asunder and three inches deep, and sharpened at their lower edges, so that the whin shoots were cut into short lengths. An Edinburgh agriculturist has described the usefulness of this mattock like too as follows:- “That horses will thrive of bruised whins or furze I had considerable experience in the Winter of 1826, after the summer had burned up the straw of all sorts of grain on light soil. Old whins, growing in a fir plantation, supplied young shoots from one foot to three feet in height, which were cut by a field worker with a hook, and led to a steading, where it was bruised with a rammer. … Every man bruised, with this implement, as much furze in the morning, on a stone floor, in twenty minutes, as served his pair of horses for the day. The horses relished the whins better than hay, and became remarkably fine in condition and coat.”

Where a large head of stock had to be fed, however, the hand method of crushing was found to be laborious and labour-wasting, and as a further step in development the “whin-mill” arose. It is almost impossible at the present day to trace the existence of whin mallets or whin-bruisers, for their small size and wooden construction led to their rapid disappearance so soon as they fell out of use; but the whin-mill was a more solid contrivance, and its remains, dilapidated and useless, but still recognisable, are to be seen in several Scottish districts, particularly in (so far as my knowledge goes) in the more northern counties, from Aberdeenshire to Caithness. Two types of whin-mill were in use: The common feature of both being a large crushing stone, which revolved round a central pivot by horse of bullock traction, and by its weight crushed the whins placed in its path. The simpler and perhaps earlier type of whin-mill stone resembled in shape a large field-roller, except that the long cylinder tapered nearer the end of the central pivot of the mill, to allow of rotary movement confined to a comparatively short radius. The area over which the roller revolved was generally rudely paved with flat stones to increase the effectiveness of the bruising process. Sometimes in the neighbourhood of a farm courtyard the circular paving may still be seen, sometimes the tapering roller, but there are few cases, if any, where the two still remain in juxtaposition as when in working order. In the second type of whin-mill the stone was disc shaped, like the grinding stones of a meal-mill. Through the centre of the disc passed a long wooden axle, one end of which was attached to the central pivot of the mill, while to the other a horse or bullock was harnessed. This type of stone rotated in a shallow ditch in the ground, in which the whins were placed, and which, to increase the crushing power of the roller, was often lined on the sides and bottom with rough flagstones.

Following on the continued use of whins as a feeding-stuff, and the desire for a more portable and less clumsy piece of apparatus than the fixed whin-mill, came the invention of a mechanical cutter worked by hand. By this instrument, known as the “Whin, Gorse, or Furze Masticator,” according to the “Illustrated Guide to Agriculture,” 1879, furze was “cut up into short lengths by revolving knives, and was then passed between a pair of masticating rolls, which effectively reduced it to a soft pulpy condition, destroying all the prickles.”

Here the development of whin crushing machines seems to have come to an end, and the use of whins themselves on a large scale to have begun to decay. This short historical survey, however, is sufficient to emphasise that in the whin crops of waste places there lies a plentiful, nourishing and cheap feeding stuff, the use of which is well worth serious considerations at the present time.

James Ritchie

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