The Importance Of Charcoal As A Feed Additive

charcoal1I was born almost 70 years ago in the middle of a bombing raid.  Times were very hard and food scarce.  Because of the lack of money (and petrol) there were still a great many working horses around.  I clearly remember the milkman coming round in a pony and trap, delivering milk from big churns with a pint-size dipper, to housewives who came out with jugs to collect it.  There was also a fruit and vegetable man who came round each week with a horse-drawn cart loaded with produce.  He used to ring a bell to announce his arrival.

Coal was delivered by a blackened white man called, Fallowfield, one of nature’s gentleman, who had a big wagon full of bags of coal pulled by a big drey horse, and the brewers wagons were pulled by the most wonderful huge Clydesdales.  All the farms round about kept horses and I used to hang over a stable door watching the blacksmiths shoe them.  Everybody rode or drove carts or traps and there were always horses tethered in the pub yard whilst their owners, mostly local farmers, wet their whistles inside.

The hunt was a regular feature of country life and point to point or steeple chasing the preferred sport, after cricket.  Horse care came as naturally to people as breathing.  Thousands of years of knowledge went into the keeping and breeding of horses.  There’s many a tip I picked up from talking to Gypsy horse dealers at the fairs.

By this time the war had been over for several years and I had become an orphan living with a relative and running wild.  I fished the rivers, poached the game, chased the girls and raided the orchards around the village with a gang of friends who fought and played together in happy anarchy and hurt no-one.

In the 50’s and 60’s horses grazed what were essentially wild flower pastures which might be ploughed up one year in three or sown with clover to improve their fertility.  Horse manure was a valuable commodity and mushrooms always grew in the fields where horses had grazed.  Such little bits of knowledge were useful in the austerity years when food was still rationed and everyone was “skinny”.  People were lean, hard and healthy and although they died of things that we can now cure, yet in the main, the population was much fitter and more vigorous.  Some of the winters back then were brutal and once when we were taking hay out to our horses in deep winter a friend and I came across a dead body in a ditch.  The poor fellow had got his car stuck in the snow and decided to walk towards the village lights.  Falling and hitting his head he lost consciousness and froze to death.  I can still see his face today, he’d gone gray with the frost.

After we called the police we became local celebrities for a week or so impressing saucer-eyed girls with our bravado!

We fed the horses oats (often from a nose bag) bran, hay chaff, fruit and vegetables. They grazed the hedgerows, many of which were hundreds of years old and contained a huge variety of different plants.  The meadows were abundant with different herbs and grasses and I can remember the sweet herbal smell of the horse’s breath of a September dawn when I was out mushrooming or walking the stubble with a gun and my dog.

I was privileged as a child to see the end of an era which stretched back unbroken for almost six thousand years.  Prior to the arrival of Neolithic pastoralists, the country was covered in wildwood which had developed in the wake of the retreating ice sheets.  Armed with flint axes, fire and grazing animals, Neolithic man began to clear the wild wood and to turn the country into the patchwork of woodland, arable and grasslands I knew as a boy.

The ash and charcoal returned to the soil as a by-product of land clearance helped boost the land’s fertility and encouraged the establishment of a rich sward.  Charcoal is particularly useful in this role as it has a vast internal structure of cracks and pores which provide acres of surface on which fungi and microbes can

establish their colonies. In nature, fungi provide the first step in the breakdown of nutrients in the soil making them available for plant roots to absorb.  This symbiosis is greatly assisted by ploughing charcoal into the soil as it promotes “terra preta”, a rich, dark fertile soil where fungal activity perpetuates the soil’s fertility.

All early agrarian civilisations thrived on the use of charcoal to provide fertility where there was little before and you can still hear an echo of this in the slash and burn techniques of land clearance practised by forest Indians in the remote Amazon.  The pre-historic ‘Dehesa’ (slash and burn) is still practised in Spain’s Extremadura to this day.

As time went by our areas of grassland developed a rich flora, which came mostly from species of plants inhabiting woodland glades and other open areas, also plants capable of inhabiting both shaded and open conditions.

Our grasslands have been managed as pasture or meadow for thousands of years, with pastures providing permanent grazing for livestock, while meadows have been shut off during the summer grazing season with the resulting hay crop conserved for winter fodder.

Early farming communities valued productive grasslands and managed their fields accordingly to maintain their fertility. Since both grazing and mowing steadily removes soil nutrients, the spreading of animal dung as a manure and the use of charcoal formed the main means of maintaining the fertility of the land.

So for many many centuries, our semi-natural grasslands were in harmony with their makers, providing productive agricultural land, whilst retaining a high biological diversity.  This formed the basis of the health of the community, both human and animal and very healthy we were too.  Then everything changed!

The last 70 years has seen a dramatic decline in our semi-natural lowland grassland.  New farming practices, particularly the use of artificial in-organic fertilisers, have greatly increased the productivity of agricultural grasslands.  Many former flower-rich hay meadows and pastures have now been replaced by lush
green fields dominated by perennial rye grass and other agricultural species with just a few nutrient-demanding plants, like white clover and common mouse-ear surviving.

The majority of grassland plants are unable to compete against the vigorous growth of grasses and were quickly lost from the sward.  Only about 3% of “unimproved” lowland grassland still remains intact in England and Wales and many grassland plant species which were once a common feature of the countryside are now becoming increasingly rare.

Each plant species, which previously formed part of the natural diet of horses, carried within it its own particular complex of nutrients, minerals, phyto chemicals, and the like.  Each of which played its part in keeping horses (and people) healthy.  The bacteria which thrive on the vast range of different plant species formed a valuable addition to the horse’s hind gut digestive process and because, in part, of this broadly-based nutrient-rich diet, illness was rare.

The nutrients released from the soil by various plants are essential to the health and well-being of the animals that graze upon them.  Each plant or herb provides a specific part of the spectrum of nutrients that the animal needs to maintain its health.  Grazing animals, especially the more intelligent ones like horses, are well aware of the properties of various herbs which is why they will eat selectively of these when given the opportunity.  In this way they self-medicate keeping themselves free from parasites and all the illnesses which flow from their diet in captivity.

Fire is a natural and regular occurrence in the wild environment.  It is used by nature to stimulate fresh growth and to return nutrients to the soil.  Woodland fires leave the trunks of standing and fallen trees charred and because charcoal binds fungi, bacteria and virus into itself, thus neutralising them, these trunks don’t rot but stand around for years preserved by their charcoal carapace. Our ancestors ingested copious amounts of this charcoal as a dietary supplement, particularly since their diet was about 85% vegetable matter and therefore quite “wind making.”  You can see incidental evidence of this to this day in the Lascaux Cave paintings where all the handprints on the ceilings of these caves have been created by our early ancestors pounding charcoal, mixing it with water, taking it into their mouths and spraying it around the outline of their hands.

Throughout all these inhabited cave complexes there are literally hundreds of different hand prints high up on the ceilings, each one being different.  The purpose of these is unknown but archaeological experiments have shown that the only way that they can be created is to spray a mixture of water and charcoal from the mouth, thus leaving a very individual imprint.  These must have been of considerable significance to our ancestors since almost all of them are at least 30 feet up on the ceilings of the caves!

When I was a boy people regularly took charcoal tablets to settle their stomachs and dogs were routinely given charcoal biscuits as an antidote to gas.  (These are still on sale today made by the same company that’s been making them since Victorian times).

I clearly remember horses grazing over the ashes of campfires and “scrunching” up charcoal as they came upon it.

Today, a proprietary brand of charcoal called “HAPPY TUMMY” is widely used by discerning horse owners to help keep their horses healthy.  It works by carrying lots of oxygen into the horse’s system and by then adsorbing the toxins that have accumulated through stress and a diet lacking in the essential nutrients described above.  The addition of dietary charcoal to a horse’s feed is an approach to a horse’s well being recommended both by its history and by its success!

We can’t go back to the old ways but we can minimise the impact of rapid change on our horse’s diet by using “HAPPY TUMMY” charcoal – the natural antidote.

Contact Dr Foster, Fine Fettle Feeds on 01600 712496 or go to for more details.

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