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History of the Ox

Oxen arrive in Nova Scotia

Sieur de Pourtrincourt brought the first working oxen to Nova Scotia in 1610. From then until around 1850 oxen were the chief source of power on most farms. It was then that horses began to replace oxen in most agricultural areas, although in the south-western part of Nova Scotia, the oxen have continued to be used even to today.

There were different ways of harnessing oxen. The Acadians and Germans strapped head yokes to the horns, while the British and New Englanders from Britain used a bow yoke that rested on the animals necks and was held there with bent wooden bows that went under their necks.

In the early days the oxen, usually Durhams, Devons, Ayrshire, and various crosses, were in general smaller than those in use today, and the roads and fields were often much more rugged, therefore often more than one team of oxen were needed to be hooked together to pull the heavy loads required of them.

As time went on, Herefords grew in popularity and Hereford/Shorthorn and Hereford/Ayrshire crosses became more popular. Many valued the Hereford/Ayrshire cross because they felt that the Herefords gave their animals the size and weight and the Ayrshire gave them the spirit necessary for good working oxen. But because these crosses had a great variety of color and markings they were more difficult to match. The Holsteins also gained in popularity because of their availability and price. But these animals grew very rapidly and there were problems with them meeting the weight requirements of pulling contests and with young teamsters being able to continue to handle them. Other breeds although less common were also used, such as Brown Swiss, light dairy breeds, and various crossbreds.

Over time, farmers began to take great pride in their oxen and often bred their cattle with a goal of producing animals for use as working cattle. A team of heavy white-faced oxen, with a bright red yoke, and headpads decorated with woollen tassels and studded with brass was considered a very valuable resource and a source of great pride. All over the country the sounds of "Haw, Lion", "Gee, Bright", and the crack of the leather-sheathed whip were heard, and the sights of well cared for oxen working in fields and walking on country roads were seen.

Oxen continue to hold their popularity in this Maritime Province where many farms are too small to support a tractor. They are not at all outdated and continue to be used to till the ground and bring in the harvests. Fairs are held to pit the strength and ability of one team of oxen against another and thereby continuing to preserve the interest of these valuable and historical animals from one generation to another.

Oxen in Canada

Oxen were used across early Canadian history for breaking the land, logging and transportation.

Pioneers were more likely to buy oxen than horses because oxen could live off the land where horses were both more expensive to purchase and to feed. And when an ox became too old to work it could be turned into food for a hungry family. Although they were slow and sometimes difficult in heat or fly season, they were strong and generally patient. Even when the homesteaders had the oats grown necessary to feed a horse, they would still for many years keep a team of oxen because of the lower costs of their upkeep.

For the lumberjacks, first oxen and then horses were used to work in the timber in winter to haul out lumber. The lumber was a very important staple of the Canadian trade and was responsible in a great part for the transformation of the country. The European demand for large masts, shingles, barrel staves, box shooks, spoolwood, sawn lumber and square lumber brought investment, immigration, economic development, towns, villages, roads and exploration.

As time went on oxen were replaced with horses and then with machinery, and except for little oasis' of preserved heritage like the small farms of Nova Scotia, Ross Farm Museum in Nova Scotia, and a few individuals across our country who found it important to preserve this part of our heritage, these wonderful pondering beasts became a rare site in Canada.

Yet oxen are once more slowly gaining popularity as reduced fuel prices and a renewed interest in natural living are becoming increasingly important.

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