Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Gorse as horse fodder

Gorse (Ulex europaeus) was formerly valued as a winter food for horses and cattle.  In 1847 it was estimated that 80% of Welsh farmers fed it to their horses.  Gorse is abundant on land where little else of any nutritional value grows, and at one time it was cultivated on a ‘large scale’ for this purpose.  However before it could be fed to horses it was necessary for it to be bruised or crushed.   On small farms the cut gorse was simply crushed using hammers, on larger farms water-driven gorse mills were used.

The gorse mill shown here was built at Dolwen, Clywd, in 1842, and moved to the Welsh Folk Museum, now the St Fagans National Museum of History, in 1979.  Running water turned a wheel which drove a heavy spiked rod that crushed the gorse.  It is estimated that it took two men and a boy 20 minutes to crush a ‘large bundle’ of gorse.  It seems that the Dolwen building had only a short life as a mill.  In the 1850s factory-made gorse mills, which were hand-operated or oil powered, became available, and by 1866 the upper floor of the Dolwen mill was being used as a grain store.

Writing of Scotland in their Flora Celtica, 2004: 243, Milliken and Bridgewater state that gorse and broom (Cytisus scoparius) ‘provide excellent food for horses and sheep and are said to increase the milk yield of cattle’.  At one time they were planted as rotation crop for this purpose:

‘Before the invention of mechanical crushers … spiny gorse foliage was beaten with wooden mallets or ground down with special stones.  According to one account from Midlothian in 1795, an acre of gorse could keep six horses for four months, with twenty minutes spent “bruising” the foliage daily.’

Elsewhere, in Fenagh, Co. Leitrim, according to a contributor to the Irish Folklore Commission’s, 1937-38 Schools’ Survey (212: 61):

Whins [gorse] … are cut up and pounded.  Then they are given to horses to take the worms out of them’.

Images: March 2017.

Edited 4 December 2021.