The use of animals in permaculture design is a fundamental aspect which provides diversification of a system as well as accelerating this system towards its potential maturity. Integration of elements in a system can occur through the use of animals natural tendency to do useful work as their living function and increase the complexity of interactions possible in a way that aligns with natural tendencies of ecological reality.
Animals love to work and give valuable yields such as eggs, meat, milk, cloth, skin and so on. Having a diverse selection of useful animals is a valuable addition to any permaculture system and can fulfil many natural niches in a productive manner.
Here at Zaytuna farm in northern NSW, Australia we have been researching the use of a wide array of animal systems. Here we have cows, goats, chickens, geese, turkeys (Muscovy ducks), rabbits and worms as our most valuable productive animals at this current moment. We obtain different yields from the animals, and also, use each animal as a functional working element in aspects of farm maintenance. For example our chickens scratch over the soil, our goats feed on weedy pest trees, our cows mow pasture and our worms turn food scraps into worm juice and worm castings.
An additional important use that we have been observing, exploring and developing in working with animals is an extra, yet seemingly subtle, value as a discipline factor for the allotment of meaningful work as humans interacting daily with those animal systems. A mouthful of a sentence, what this means is that wherever there are animals, we need to visit on a very regular basis. This is, of course, a very straight forward and obvious statement.
Where the complexity and elegance lies, however, is in designing these animal systems, and the timings of their movements throughout the site, to intentionally draw our attention and focus towards specific areas of a functioning farm.
Animals require daily attention in a way that is much more demanding than, for example, plants. When a plant dies, particularly for those of us who feel very personally about plants and especially those we have an affinity for, it is a tragedy. However when an animal dies, it is often felt that much more intensely by many. We tend not to want to allow animal death to occur through neglect and as such any animals within a permaculture system are immediately going to draw extra attention to the area in which they inhabit.
We will be visiting those areas much more regularly than we would otherwise to feed, water, obtain yields (such as eggs or milk), care for and check up on our animals. When we set our animals to do particular work within an area of the land we are working, this extra attention is of beneficial use by bringing our daily awareness and visitation to these areas. Thus a part of the land, that may easily be placed lower on the order or priorities, to the point of neglect, is immediately brought right up to the top.
An example that we have been using on Zaytuna farm can be given in the form of our food forest chickens. Our chickens are moved to sections of food forest as a maintenance tool. With moveable 50 metre sections of electrical fencing, and a moveable chicken trailer, we are able to set up sections of 25-50 square metres (or more, depending on how many fences we use) and rotate, in a planned and timed manner, our chickens through establishing sections of food forest and speed up the transition from grass and weedy shrubs to pioneering forest. The very act of this process that to free range our chickens without damage from over scratching and compaction requires us to be disciplined to consistent interaction, section by section, with the area of developing food forest on the site.
There is only so long a given section can tolerate the impact of free-ranging chickens before an adverse impact through soil compaction and over scratching is created. In order to move the chickens, first and depending on the season and the developmental stage of the forest, any grass in the new section is cut. The chickens are moved in, and as daily attention is given to them, any logs can be turned providing insect forage and any clumping grass can be chipped out which also allows the chickens access to more insects and weed seeds.
The chickens work through the area thoroughly taking the ground cover back to the bare soil, eating weed seeds and scattering their manure. When we move the chickens out is when we come in with a follow-up of cover crop and chop ‘n’ drop of any well established nitrogen-fixing support species to feed our fruit trees and open up available light during growing season. Using the chicken tractor in this way allows us to discipline our maintenance and in other cases establishment, of food forest systems.
In this same ongoing manner, we use our other animals to create similar focuses of time and energy into key areas throughout the farm. Our goats are used in gully areas to clear weedy plants and trees such as privet, lantana and camphor laurel all of which they enjoy eating, particularly in places where there is a combination of the three. The goats are only able to reach a certain amount of the foliage so constant daily maintenance is required to take down bigger branches and even whole small trees for the goats to feed on.
This extra attention, to feed the goats, allows us to bring our awareness to areas that would be otherwise disregarded and has us clearing undesirable plants, and creating conditions for more desirable productive or native rainforest species, to be positioned in a gradual act of displacement. By dropping whole trees right down to soil level and continuing to cycle the goats, over the years, back in these cleared areas, even vigorous coppicing weedy trees such as privet and camphor laurel can be effectively managed and eventually entirely displaced by more desirable tree species.
Similar systems of animal use, with different domesticated livestock, can be established in a myriad of ways depending on the animal’s natural behaviour, our design and the desired outcome. By adding in the extra element of discipline, through attention to animal health and well-being, to our design we can intentionally create intelligent establishment and maintenance pathways through our landscape transforming degraded lands into rich, diverse and productive human-centric ecosystems.
Some further reading:
- REFORESTING WITH GOATS
- CHICKEN SYSTEMS OF ZAYTUNA FARM
- GEOFF LAWTON’S ZAYTUNA FARM VIDEO TOUR (APR/MAY 2012) – TEN YEARS OF (R)EVOLUTIONARY DESIGNGEOFF LAWTON’S ZAYTUNA FARM VIDEO TOUR – PART II
- MY VISIT TO PRI ZAYTUNA FARM
- ANOTHER INTERNSHIP GETS UNDERWAY ON ZAYTUNA FARM
- ZAYTUNA FARM YIELDS
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