From Anthony Dent’s Donkey: The Story of the Ass From East to West. Dent was born in 1915 in North Yorkshire, just to orient you.
‘When I was a child in a small coastal resort in the North-east the most senior employees of our local council were two old men and a donkey, who between them operated a miniature dust-cart. They did not empty the bins behind the houses, but patrolled the streets, front and back, sweeping up casual rubbish and carting it away. … the old boys and their moke [slang for donkey] were still doing a fair amount of business right through the nineteen-twenties, and in a sense they distributed the lesser fleas which great fleas had on their backs to bite ’em: because the last really coprogenic horses to ply our streets, surviving the ice-cream float and the pony-drawn milk-cart and the fish-trolleys (driven by blue-bonneted ladies from the neighbouring fishing villages at a furious pace, to the accompaniment of eldritch shrieks of ” ‘Erreen, fresh ‘erreen-a-a-a” or “Feesh, feesh, feeeesh!”) by many years, were the mountainous Clydesdale geldings – also the property of the Health Department – which emptied the bins of household refuse.’
It might sound merely quaint, but recent pilot schemes in Europe have put a twenty-first century twist on the refuse horse. They’re using national heavy-horse breeds from state studs and donkeys to collect recycling. A Guardian report on some local European schemes spells it out goes into detail:
For Jean Baptiste, mayor of medieval Peyrestortes, near Perpignan and one of 60 towns now using horses to collect waste, the benefit above all is practical. “You can’t turn a waste collection vehicle around here. We used to block streets to traffic and keep waste in open skips.” He sold off a dustbin lorry and acquired two Breton carthorses instead. Asked whether the changes are saving money, he says: “It’s too early. But money isn’t the only reason. The exhaust smells have gone, the noise has gone, and instead we have the clip-clop of horses’ hooves.”
In Saint Prix, however, in Greater Paris, Mayor Jean-Pierre Enjalbert is certain he is saving money as the novelty of the horses has increased recycling rates. “By using the horse for garden waste collection, we have raised awareness. People are composting more. Incineration used to cost us €107 a tonne, ridiculous for burning wet matter, now we only pay €37 to collect and compost the waste.”
Well-established horse-drawn collections also succeed in Trouville, and in Vendargues near Montpellier, but many ventures last only a few months. Sita, France’s second biggest waste management and recycling company, has now integrated the “collecte hippomobile” into three refuse collection circuits in the Aube département in central France.
Sita’s Alexandre Champion, who instigated the idea, points to several factors behind the failed ventures: unsuitable horses, untrained workers or inadequate terrain, poor equipment. Housing estates or old town centres with flat terrain work best, with a circuit of under 20 km a day, he says. But even terrain problems can be overcome, and this autumn Sita starts horse-drawn collection in hilly Verdun, with a pair of strong carthorses. …
In Sicily, another place bringing back four-hoofed transport, Mario Cicero, mayor of 14th-century town Castelbuono, disagrees. He pioneered glass and cardboard collection using two packsaddle donkeys in 2007. Three years on, Cicero has done his sums and calculated a cost saving of 34%, as well as winning over a sceptical population and putting more donkeys to work.
“Compared with €5,000–7,000 annual running costs for a diesel truck, an ass costs €1,000–1,500 and can live 25-30 years. A truck costs around €25,000, lasts around five years and can’t reproduce,” says Cicero, whose four asinelli have now produced 25 offspring, so he won’t even be buying any more.
Of traditional British heavy horse breeds, the Suffolk Punch is currently “endangered”, Clydesdales “vulnerable” and Shires “at risk”. Oh, if only that £250,000,000 the government is freeing up for rubbish collection could be spent on a true, Green, British horse-powered refuse revolution…
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