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[first published in Horse and Rider magazine, august 1999]

Permaculture Design and Horses.

Lyn Dixon.


What is Permaculture design? It is the design of sustainable agriculture and communities. Bill Mollison, co-founder of Permaculture in 1976, sums it up as follows; " the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people, providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way." He goes on to say "Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms."

Permaculture looks not only at physical needs but also at psychological needs. This is where community can be so important. So when we design a system for our horses it is very important to design for their emotional / psychological requirements, baring in mind that ideally they would chose to live in the community of a herd.

Permaculture design is a flexible way of thinking rather than a set of strict rules. There are no sacred cows because every situation is unique,(every horse, field and keeper.) It is an umbrella which covers many things. It is a framework which draws together many good practises such as technology, organic growing, vegi box schemes, community building, personal development, and organises, them into a cohesi9ve strategy. The list of subjects it can touch is as long and as varied as the many aspects of our lives. Once we know the ethics and principles of Permaculture we can apply them easily and with good effect. I chose to apply them to my methods of horse care and was amazed to find how clearly it pin pointed where things worked well and where they didn't. It was then easy to redesign any weak areas referring again to the principles as a check list. Where things were already working well, the principles applied, where things were not working well it was easy to see that if certain principles were taken into consideration the situation could be greatly improved.

These are the ethics and principles of Permaculture design. There are three ethics;

There are five basic principles, though David Holmgren the other founder of Permaculture names additional ones. They are not listed in any order of importance;

So how do we apply all this to the keeping of our horses in order to make life better for them, easier for us and less demanding on our planets limited resources? The easiest way to illustrate this would be to take one aspect of horse management as an example. So bearing the principles in mind, lets take a look at pasture management. This is where the fun starts. We'll consider a hypothetical piece of over grazed pasture with marshy poached areas.

The conventional way to approach this problem might be to drain, plough and re-seed but as we move so sensibly towards creating a more natural lifestyle for our horses, with more natural foods, company and less confinement, let's not forget the ground they walk on and treat that with sensitivity too. Nature, like horses, has more strength than us. Working with nature rather than against it, turns that strength to our advantage. Draining an area can be costly or even unsuccessful and less productive in the long run. Marshes are a particular niche and provide a rich and unique habitat. They are just one link in the interdependent chain of a sustainable system; remove one link and the chain falls apart. Many beneficial plants favour this environment. Meadowsweet, an indicator of wetland, soothes the alimentary tract and along with willow, another lover of wet ground, contains salicylic acid, which is nature's aspirin. The alder tree, another wetland plant, although not a legume is a nitrogen fixer. So if possible leave some wet areas to support the flora and fauna of this niche to the benefit of the rest of your system. Another possibility for wet areas is to think of them not as a problem but an opportunity. For example acid wet land can support blue berries, a delicious fruit and commercially viable crop. So the problem is the solution, with the revenue from the blueberry crop contributing towards winter feed etc. In fact, in areas prone to drought, it may be necessary to slow down the rate of run-off from the land even to the point of storing water to provide seepage irrigation

Ploughing will destroy millions of soil bacteria necessary for healthy plant growth. The structure of the soil will collapse into a compacted airless crust. Air in soil is essential for it's health, these pockets of air are needed for the function of nitrogen fixing by nodules on legume roots. Good soil produces healthy growth. Good management of that growth produces a sward of the desired species. If it's not broken don't fix it; minimal intervention is often the best policy. A ploughed and re-seeded field is easily invaded by plants such as creeping thistle and dock, stones are brought to the surface to the detriment of your horse's feet and run off from rain carries ton upon ton of soil seaward every year never to be seen on our land again.

So instead of draining and ploughing, work with what you have. Encourage the species you want and discourage those you don't. Feed the soil and subsequently the grasses with nitrogen, phosphates and potassium; this is what N.P.K. stands for on chemical fertiliser sacks. Nitrogen, is produced by legumes and some non leguminous plants. If you have a proportion of clover in your pasture, nitrogen will be released into the soil in the autumn when the clover dies back. This is the N. in N.P.K. Phosphates are found in bird droppings. Running a few hens on your land will broadcast it for you and a mine of phosphate rich manure will accumulate in their coop. The hens will scratch out mosses, eat root-eating larvae such as leather jackets and cockchaffer grubs and of course you'll have free range eggs. Phosphate is the P. in N.P.K. Potassium is found in bracken. So cutting it or pulling it, (not in late summer as the spores are carcinogenic), and adding it to your muckheap will increase the potassium content of the manure. Potassium is the K. in N.P.K. Clover, chickens, bracken, or nitrogen, phosphate, potassium or N.P.K. fertiliser, without resorting to chemicals and with no great expense, plus tasty eggs. Now you're working with nature not against it , having maximum effect from minimum input.

We now want to reduce the woodier more rank species and favour the palatable grasses. Herbicides are poisons and whilst many produce the required result, there are better ways. Sheep, at a very low stocking rate, perhaps one sheep to every two acres, mix well with horses. They will eat the woodier plants quite happily thus giving the grasses less competition. They also provide company and vacuum up a percentage of equine parasites with no harm to themselves. They will also eat ragwort in the first year of it's biennial growth, when it is in the rosette form; perhaps most sheep are butchered before the toxins in the plant accumulate to a lethal level. If you don't want to have sheep permanently, either borrow some or buy in a couple of lambs in the spring and put them in the freezer in October. So in return for their keep, sheep will destroy parasitic larvae, discourage woody growth, encourage grasses, provide wool for yarn or felt, or they can be "harvested" to provide skins for rugs or leather and excellent meat. Much more productive than a can of fertiliser. Everything gardens, in this case the sheep and hens are "gardening." Also the yield of the system has been increased to its benefit.

So work with nature rather than against it. Get to know your own pasture's plants, literally nipping in the bud any undesirable species before they become a problem. The solutions I have suggested do work and there are some wacky and boggling things that can be done such as growing a living field shelter, or putting great diving beetle larvae into water troughs were they will eat any flies etc. that fall in, drown and pollute the water No species is an island; it's no wonder that we have to plough and poison, drain and toil, to keep one animal species on what is almost a monoculture of maybe three grasses and one clover. Look at the plains of Africa, healthy grassland, healthy grazers and healthy predators, all living in natural balance in a sustainable system. No human goes in to weed, sow, drain, till, cull or harvest, but all these processes are going on continuously. So by copying natural systems or patterns we can reduce our labour and increase the productivity and health of our land, to the benefit of both us and our horses.

I hope this illustrates how the principles can be applied. Other areas such as, field lay out including the positioning of water, shelter, browse, fencing, gateways can be considered in the same way. Getting these things right, i.e.. from the horse's point of view is essential for his psychological well being. We can design systems which, when up and running require less input from us, both in time and money, are less damaging to the environment, are more conducive with the natural life style of the horse, thus reducing emotional stress which could result in vices. In so doing we also create a more harmonious situation for ourselves.

This article can only skim the surface of this fascinating and important subject. At our home in Snowdonia we offer Permaculture courses, some specialise in Permaculture for horses. Chris is a qualified Permaculture designer and lecturer, Lyn has over thirty years experience with horses and holds the Monty Roberts Preliminary Certificate in Horsemanship.


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