Animals in the permaculture system: a few brief points to consider

What is it about animals? Many people love them. Some people don’t get along so well. They can be a big responsibility, and for people living alone during a pandemic lockdown, they may be the only source of companionship and hugs. Whether you are an animal lover or not, vegan or omnivore, every permaculture or ecological system needs to consider how animals fit with the overall system. So how do you choose the best animal contributors to your system, and how do you provide them with best practice care?

Alpacas are popular for fibre, manure, meat, herd protectors, and fun, but require some specialist knowledge and care.

Some things to think about, well before you begin:

Check your local council regulations.

How much time do you have to provide the care needed?

How much experience do you have?

How much space do you have, appropriate for the animals you are planning?

Do you have access to resources – food, water, shelter, bedding material? Can you provide for some of their needs from within your property or community, or use recycled/upcycled materials?

Are you prepared for when things go wrong? Chances are they will at some stage, whether that is due to predators or health issues. Vet bills add up quickly!

What is your plan for if you can no longer care for the animals? Animal life spans can be anything from a few years to decades, and during that time we can become very attached to the furred and feathered family members. Circumstances can change, such as work or family commitments. Having a plan can help alleviate any anxiety about the future.

One really important decision is whether you are planning to breed future generations, which requires another level of knowledge and skill, or just keep animals that are desexed or of one sex to prevent unplanned breeding.

In a very general sense, all animals (humans included) require the same things: food, water, shelter, health care, and companionship. Before you rush out to purchase those new babies, it’s important to do your research and learn how to provide for their needs. Within a domestic environment, we cannot assume that animals will be able to provide for themselves in the same way as their wild ancestors once did. Keep in mind that the process of domestication and breeding for specific human-centric purposes has changed the way that animals behave, how they look and their nutritional needs. Within each species there may be multiple different breeds and it is important to find the one(s) that suit you and your circumstances, not just the first cute fluffball you meet. Read a few books (the Storey’s Guides are useful), attend a workshop, and find a local experienced breeder to visit. Breed associations will often provide excellent starter information, and can point you in the right direction. Conducting a niche or element analysis is a worthwhile exercise for each animal you are considering and can help you choose between a couple of options. Here I will consider some of the decision-making factors that relate to productive pets, although you can apply the same process to companion animals like cats and dogs.

Having done some serious thinking, let’s start small…

It’s easy to overlook the smallest inhabitants. Every permaculture system, garden, balcony, or windowsill is host to a miniature world of micro-organisms, soil dwellers, and visiting insects, all doing their bit to survive and thrive, and contribute to the overall balance of their ecosystem. They play a critical role in decomposition, contribute to both plant health and disease, and are a vital food source for many other small creatures including insects, spiders, birds, lizards, and frogs. ‘Observe, pause, and interact’ is important here. Before you rush to get rid of the aphids, consider if you can live with them long enough for the ladybirds to show up and deal with the problem. Without food, there is nothing for the predatory insects to live on. If you are new to permaculture gardening, many experienced growers will tell you that it takes time for a system to stabilise, and the first few years can be hit and miss, until the system starts to come into balance. Other wild creatures also visit and need to be considered; providing habitat will contribute to the health of your system, as well as the pleasure of observing the antics of the visitors. However, you will also need to think about how to protect valuable crops or be prepared to share the harvest.

Small domestic animals like guinea pigs or quail can fit into a micro-urban permaculture system, but whether they become a helper, or a chore, will depend on your preparedness to set them up to both provide for their needs, and to contribute to the overall health and functioning of the system. Will you house them in one place, and bring in all their food, water, and bedding? Or set up a ‘tractor’ to move them around the space. Either can work, but will have different implications for routines, cleaning, and predator protection. Guinea pigs make excellent lawn mowers. I have successfully housed pairs in a tractor, moving them onto a fresh patch of grass once or twice a day. This partly reduces the need for supplementary food, and spreads manure, but does require commitment to move them daily, and provide shade in hot weather. Quail can also be housed in a tractor, but I prefer to house them in a secure aviary with a deep litter system where they can turn sawdust, grass clippings, manure, and weeds into excellent compost, with the bonus of tasty (if small) prolific egg production. This is also a useful technique in areas with soil contamination to prevent scratching, or in gardens too small for other poultry.

Bantam poultry can fit into many urban settings, if you choose a breed that is suitable for the space. Bantam refers to size, not a breed – just as we have toy or standard poodles, there are bantam and standard breeds of poultry. For egg production look for bantam versions of layer breeds – Australorp, Rhode Island Reds, Leghorns or Langshans (my personal recommendations). Also consider temperament and flightiness or ease of handling. The smaller the space, for children, or for nervous beginners, it is hard to go past bantam Pekins as a perfect feathered pet. They are small, docile, easy to handle and care for, but less productive. A good rule of thumb is that the more fluff, feather and decoration, the less egg production. Standard (large) breed hens will produce bigger eggs, but need more space and more food, while doing more damage in the garden. Keep in mind that ‘normal’ laying is every second day, and chooks take some time off in winter (do you work 365 days a year?) Our expectations have been upsized along with soft drinks and burger sizes, with large eggs now the supermarket norm. Commercial breeds like Isa Browns or Hylines aren’t recommended for urban sized spaces. They have been selectively bred for maximum egg production, in the shortest possible time, so need a higher protein diet to maintain production and health, and often have a short life of only 2-3 years, compared to 5-7 years for traditional breeds. For all poultry provide fresh water, a good quality pellet as a base ration, a handful of seed as a treat, access to greens and weeds or free ranging, and predator proof their coop. Foxes are common in urban areas, and it’s easy to under-estimate them. Do your research! This is a very quick overview of some points to think about.

Ducks and chooks? This is a common question. If you do an element analysis it quickly becomes clear that they have different inputs and outputs. Ducks require water to keep their heads and bills clear, making drinking water muddy, as well as a pond for splashing and swimming. They produce very wet manure and quickly make a pen wet, mucky, and smelly.  Chooks require clean water for drinking, can’t swim, and a wet pen will likely end in an outbreak of coccidiosis. If you plan to keep both provide separate pens, with the chooks uphill from the ducks, to keep them dry. Never keep drakes with your hens, as they will cause serious damage trying to mate with them, even killing them. Otherwise, many of the same questions apply. What is your purpose for keeping them – eggs, meat, snail munching, or entertainment? Research the different breeds and choose one that will fit with your system, not just the first one available.

Small farm animals, include sheep, goats and pigs, providing milk, meat and fibre, or larger poultry like geese or turkeys. Never keep just one, as all animals are happier with the company of their own kind. Research your breeds and their traditional purpose. These are not usually suitable to keep in an urban setting unless you have additional space (and most councils do not permit it). The capacity to move animals to clean pasture reduces problems like intestinal worms, and helps to manage grass and weeds, keeping soil healthy. Overgrazed land quickly becomes compacted and weedy. Good fencing is essential; your neighbours won’t appreciate goats pruning the roses! Miniature sheep and goats are available, but still require space. In an energy-descent future a milking goat may be a valuable resource, but requires knowledgeable care, and kids before they will produce milk. Beware advertisements for miniature pigs – chances are they will grow into a large animal.

Larger farm animals include alpacas and llamas, cattle, or horses. They can all play a role in a farm or larger setting, but require space, knowledgeable care, excellent fences and shelter, and a preparedness for expensive vet bills! All animals have specific nutritional requirements; usually they will need more than a bit of paddock grass. Australian topsoils are fragile and shallow, often nutrient deficient, and are quickly damaged by overstocking, so think carefully before introducing larger grazing animals.

Still keen to introduce some new ecological helpers? Good for you! Having animals in our lives enriches every day, whether big or small, wild, or domestic. Creating space for them adds to biodiversity, increases the connections between elements, and increases the productive outcomes. If you are smart about how you plan, do your research, use protracted and thoughtful observation, before the introductions begin, the chances of a successful outcome increase, and everyone, people and the animals will be happier for it.

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