(Wild aurochs, the ancestor of modern cattle, depicted in its woodland habitat, wikimedia)
“Cattle are forest animals. They are not pasture animals. You have to chase them out on to pastures. Really, cattle belong in cool forest swamplands. They love it. In summer, they spend all their time up to their bellies out in swamps, eating the swamp grasses. In winter they will come back into the forest edges.
That is where we got them from. That was their habit–the white ox of the forests of northern Europe.” –
Because of our romantic notions of the American farm, the cowboys of the arid west, and the buffulo of the Great Plains, it seems impossible to us that the cow was a forest animal, but Bill Mollison was yet again (mostly) correct! (Modern genetic evidence indicates that all cattle were domesticated in Turkey, and that Europeans never domesticated their local aurochs.)
Studies on the aurochs, the predecssor of modern cattle, have found it was a forest dweller with a special relationship to swamps, marshes, riversides and grassy wetlands:
“Evidence which has never been used in this discussion before consists of data from the last Central European wilderness, the Great Wilderness in former East Prussia (NE Poland). During the middle ages, a wilderness situation existed in this area for several centuries, nearly untouched by man (Mager 1960, Mortensen & Mortensen 1938). All original indigenous herbivores (including the aurochs) and predators were present at the time and human settlements and agricultural fields were absent. Descriptions of that area, by eyewitnesses, show the widespread presence of extensive forests and marshes. Just like the Romans in Germania, here army units also had great difficulties to penetrate the wilderness forests. A large number of route descriptions through this area have been handed down (Hirsch 1863); from these we can learn about the density of the forests and the problems people had in cutting and clearing paths through them. Medieval people did not like these wild woods and saw it as their task to order and cultivate this ‘highly inhospitable’ landscape.”
Such was the natural habitat of the aurochs, from which we domesticated modern cattle! And its diet was much like the diet of domesticated escapees, or those left to their own devices: wetland and open woodland grasses, some leaves and twigs, especially in winter, and acorns in fall.
And for most domesticated cattle the world over, this “mosaic landscape” of grassy woodland edge has continued to be their main habitat, as part of the tropical home garden, the “homestead pattern of humanity.” The Zebu (Bos Indicus) has long been at home in the tropical home gardens of South Asia, and its European cousin has long been housed in similar homestead conditions. Those systems evolved out of an economic necessity to cooperate with nature, and it turns out they may convey many advantages to modern homesteaders, farmers, and the society that relies on them.
And the same holds true of our other common domesticated companions, we found our friends in the forests! Chickens were domesticated from the Malay jungle fowl, turkeys are a bird of the Eastern Woodland, sheep were derived from the mouflon of steep forested mountains, and pigs – like their wild boar ancestors – are naturals to mixed, shrubby woodland.
And why not? The forest is also where we primates evolved, with us humans gravitating towards the same forest edges that all these animals called home! And when we spread around the world, recreating this ideal habitat of forest edge wherever we went (the home-garden pattern) we were also creating the ideal habitat for our animal associates.
So now Permaculturists are learning from these age-old, proven, evolved homestead systems and bringing our animals back into the forest. From a purely economic perspective, this has a lot of benefits, since these animals evolved to depend upon the services of the forest ecosystem, when we remove the forest, we have to provide those services ourselves.
An even more important economic benefit is that by integrating our animals back into the homestead, they become partners, sharing our farm labor and helping contribute to ecosystem function. They can fertilize our crops, aid in pest and disease control, help keep lawns mown, and brush cleared, and so on. In an era where it’s difficult for small farms to raise meat profitably, getting these animals to help on our more profitable farm endeavors is extremely important!
And finally, in an age of unthinking industrial animal cruelty, I believe that these Permaculturists are re-kindling a more sane relationship to our age-old companions by rebuilding these old systems. It is kind to allow animals to live out their lives as freely as possible in an environment similar to their Environment of Evoutionary Adaptation (EEA.) And the more personal relationship makes a big difference on how these Permaculture animals get treated.
So here is a collection of inspiring Permaculture patterns that bring us, and our faunal associates, back into the forest:
Permaculture Patterns for Integrated Animal Systems:
Of course, there’s no reason why you HAVE to have animals to have a completely functioning Permaculture system. It’s entirely possible to get the benefits of ecosystem function by recruiting the help of wild animals in our systems, without having to use domesticated ones. But for those who want to raise animals, these systems might be of some help.
Cattle pattern 1: Rotational Silvopasture Alley grazing = rotational grazing for Michigan’s climate
My favorite cattle system: http://permaculturenews.org/2013/07/16/advanced-cell-grazing-permaculture-livestock-systems-at-zaytuna-farm/
Cattle Pattern 2: Trees for cattle fodder.
Siberian pea shrub
Cattle Pattern 3: Clean runoff.
Forests and hedgerows can be used to catch and infiltrate contaminated water, reducing contamination of waterways.
Livestock Pattern 4: Sheep Fodder Pasture Plants, etc.
Chickens Pattern 5: Chicken Forage Forests and Hedgerows
Plants for chicken forage hedgerows:
wild grapes and hardy kiwi
siberian pea shrub
Chickens Pattern 6: Chickens and Compost
Preserving the Savannas