Permaculture is a holistic design system, incorporating our homes, nature, energy and food production into efficient and low footprint ways of life. Those into green living have probably heard of it by now, as have those into eco-construction or self-sufficient gardening. Originated in the mid-70s, introduced by two Australians, Bill Mollison, and David Holmgren, permaculture has in the last decade-plus become a global phenomenon.

Unfortunately for those of us who have chosen a plant-based lifestyle, much of permaculture design relies on domesticated animals. Whether they’re for food production or as beloved pets, not all of us are comfortable with that idea. However, little has been offered in the way of an alternative method to these type of designed eco-systems. Being a holistic design, considering all elements included in it, and a low-impact, minimizing waste production, permaculture has fitted livestock very well.

Animals are not only a source of food, be it meat or dairy or eggs, but they are also integral for providing fertilizer (manure), services (rotational grazing to maintain pastures) and other valuable products like wood, hides, feathers, and more. What, then, can we do when animals to fit the bill for us individually?

Fertilizing the Soil

The key to any good permaculture system is the soil, and animal manure plays a large part in this, especially with regards to the bacterial soils that annual crops tend to like. Most seasoned permaculturalists, when asked about producing this without domesticated animals, cringe a little. Perhaps, though, that’s only because they’ve never attempted it. Here’s how it could happen.

  • Wild animals also provide manure, so if we design inviting habitats for birds and bats and worms, with strategically placed receptacles in which to harvest their droppings — a dropcloth under a bird perch, a tray beneath a bat house, in situ compost buckets for free-ranging worms—we can add some, albeit much less, manure to the mix. In actually, bat and worm poop are amongst the most prized.
  • Plants also offer a lot of opportunities for fertilizing the soil without animals. Firstly, there are nitrogen-fixing plants, such as legumes, which take nitrogen (the element most common in fertilizers) from the air and “fix” it into the soil. There are also dynamic accumulators, weeds like dandelions and comfrey and borage, that have deep-tapping roots to mine hard-to-reach minerals from deep and deposit them onto the surface.
  • Water catchment systems are also a major component of permaculture design, and these are allowed to be “wild” systems that house fish, frogs, and toads. They, in turn, dirty the water with nitrogen-rich manure and urine, which can be then be applied to the garden every so often—or to compost bins as a bacterial inoculator—when the pond overflows or the water needs to be cleaned.

Getting the Job Done

Another major role that animals play in permaculture design is their ability to naturally perform tasks. For example, a chicken happily comes through a grazed grassland, clearing the ground of pests and spreading the manure left by other large animals. Cows, sheep, and goats are great for clearing land and keeping the pasture mown, while pigs are great garbage disposals and till the soil as they root around for something to eat. Cycled through a system in an intelligent way, these animals get a lot of work done. How do we account for that?

  • Animals, with all due respect, also require a lot of work. Unlike plants, they need attention daily. They need to be fed, moved, given check-ups, and protected, often occupying a large part of a farmer’s day.
  • The cost of feed and veterinarian visits require earning money, i.e. more work from humans. And, they need houses built, paddocks fenced, and space to roam. Permaculture does focus on providing these animals healthier domesticated settings, so that’s a lot of money and resources spent to have the animals work for us. Why not just do the work ourselves?
  • We can use our plant waste to attract worms, which are the best soil tillers of all, and also create compost bins with worm castings right within our garden beds. Then, when bins are full, we can be easily spread the compost around the beds.

Providing “Products”

For many animal rights activist, especially of the vegan persuasion, viewing animals and their body parts as products just doesn’t jive. But, within a holistic system, we have to occupy the niches the products — milk, eggs, meat, feathers, wool, whatever — hold in a natural, eco-systemic way. How do we have these things, or something similar, without animals in the system?

  • For the most part, food from animals gets associated with protein, Well, we could easily change the space to raise animals into land for nut trees, rotationally cultivated seed crops (superfoods like quinoa, amaranth, or pumpkin), and of course plenty of legumes to both provide the protein for us and fertility for the soil.
  • The clothing elements that animals provide have plant equivalents: cotton can be produced instead of wool, hemp can be grown for a durable fabric (instead of leather), and that’s not getting into flax (what’s used to make linen) or bamboo (a popular new plant on the scene).
  • Also, secondhand clothing, some would argue, is even greener than producing our own new fabrics. At least in this instance, we are keeping our landfills clearer and making the most of the damage we’ve already caused the planet. What’s more is that secondhand clothes will be available for a long time to come.

In short, the animal systems within a permaculture design are indeed very useful for soil building, for completing tasks, and for producing “products,” but they are hardly the only way to get the job done. In fact, permaculture continually looks to nature as the shining example of sustainability, yet no natural forests were ever built on the manure of domesticated animals. So, perhaps innovative new plant-based designs are worth considering.

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