Gorse is a yellow-flowered shrub, which is also a member of the pea family. The plant is found across the country and instead of leaves, it has spikes. Like most crops in the pea family, the gorse plant is highly nutritious, which is why the spines are there to protect it.
To most farmers having gorse on the land is not a good thing and is considered a pest and inconvenience. Usually, farmers will remove it from grazing lands, as animals tend to avoid it when grass is plentiful. Though, did you know, in the 15th and 16th century, gorse was actually highly sought after for use in winter feeding?
That’s according to a book called ‘Farming in Ireland’, by John Feehan. Mr. Feehan noted in his book that there are many registered accounts in legal documents from the 15th and 16th century, that lists gorse being used as fodder for cattle and horses.
Farmers in marginal areas used young furze/gorse shoots to feed their stock through winter, with some choosing it over hay.
“It was especially valued in feeding horses, though cattle throve on it also, either fed on its own or as part of a mixed diet,”, wrote John in his book.
This trend of feeding gorse/furze, was continued right up until the 19th century, with many farmers admitting to getting more gorse per acre than they would if they made hay instead. Farmers, in the Cork area in particular according to Feehan, grew a couple of acres of what was called ‘furze meadow’. Some farmers reported that they yielded up to 14 tons per acre when cut every year and up to 24 tons when cut every other year!
Why they used it:
- Not only was it abundant in large quantities, it also enabled farmers to make the most out of bad land. Gorse was planted in fields which would usually struggle to grow a good crop of grass and where grass crops struggle, gorse strives.
- It was already found in marginal and hill farming regions, making it a readily available resource. Gorse grows in even the worst of soils, meaning there is no hardship of a loss of crop.
- It could easily be harvested, through the use of a scythe. It is estimated that that in one hours harvesting, 30 cattle could be fed for the day.
- It is highly nutritious for both horses and cattle. As it is from the pe4a family, it is crammed full of protein, making it the perfect winter-feeding option for stock. It is also perfect for feeding to horses, as they eat the plant backwards, preventing any spines from hurting their throat. Precautions must be met when feeding to cattle, as they obviously eat differently from horses.