Sunday, October 14, 2007

Permaculture Pigs. Permaculture is a design system and one of its main ideas, I think, is to use brain to reduce the necessity of brawn. We want to design systems, like natural ecosystems, that look after themselves, with very little effort to maintain them. So we look to create beneficial relationships between different aspects of our project. One theoretical idea (apparently, with few actual working examples) is a chicken forage system, a fenced in area which one plants up with edible vegetation and trees, which will drop fruit and seeds, for them to eat.

Two years ago, we went to visit the organic sheep farm of Catherine and Charles Guillot, in the Sarthe region, to learn how to make a sheep’s wool duvet (click on the link “Read our first article in Permaculture Magazine” on the right, to read all about it). We noticed all manner of chickens, cockerels and chicks roaming about the place. Catherine told us that they were completely free range and roosted wherever they wanted to, nested in some pretty unusual places, and generally got on with the business of being chickens without any human intervention. Not without its own problems—it made collecting fresh eggs to eat a bit of a task—it did illustrate how one can unnecessarily complicate the simplest of things, as they had their own chicken forage system without application of permaculture design.

The idea remains seductive though and I’ve been thinking about a pig forage system. Since we took delivery of our two Kune Kune pigs, the damsons have come into fruit, then the apple trees and now acorns are everywhere. I stripped the branches of the damsons and, when I pruned them (a summer job, to prevent silver leaf disease) I threw the fruit-laden branches in whole, which the pigs had great fun foraging through. As that crop came to an end, apples started falling and we’ve been all over the place with wheelbarrows and buckets, picking them up to bring to the pigs. They are coming to an end as well now, to be succeeded by a huge crop of acorns (we have several venerable oaks on our smallholding).

Harvesting them is a more tricky task. Plan A: I’ve tried sweeping and raking, without much success. Plan B: during our wedding weekend, I tried to get several small children involved in picking up acorns for the hungry cute pigs but their interest waned remarkably quickly. Plan C: take the piggies to the acorns. They are sufficiently docile and tame to turn out of their enclosure if we are in attendance, and with the grey damp start turning into warm autumn sun by early afternoon, we put a couple of chairs out and fetched a book each to read and then tried to get the piggies out.

Intelligent beasts are pigs and they’ve long learnt that the blue tape gives them an electric shock when they touch it. They even associate the white plastic poles (which support the blue tape) as boundary limits and wouldn’t cross it without a hefty shove when we once took the tape down. It’s a devil of a job to take down and replace, so I switched off the electricity, hooked the tape on the top rung of the support and tried to coax them out, towards the land of plenty. I put apples the other side of the fence to create a healthy interest, then got behind the smaller one and successfully pushed him squealing through his psychological barrier. The bigger pig was too strong for me and even the site of his brother contentedly munching on unlimited acorns wasn’t enough. In a “light-bulb” moment of inspiration, I fetched a huge sheet of cardboard (no permaculturalist should be without a store of corrugated cardboard) and created a tunnel. Unable to see the electric fence, and with Gabrielle rattling a bucket of pigs nuts, he popped out like a cork out of a champagne bottle.

We spent a very pleasant hour of so reading in the sun, with two greedy pigs grazing next to us. They never looked up, never stopped eating and it was an altogether different task to get them back through the fence, whilst walking away from the food! The idea of pig forage, would be to plant up a paddock with a variety of pig foodstuffs, to provide a succession of free food, vastly reducing, but not eliminating, the need to give them additional nourishment … watch this space.


Val Grainger said...

Excellent idea to have a pig forage area for Kune kune pigs. Would probably not work with other pigs as they excavate with great enthusiasm and our 3 berkshires made half an acre look like the Somme this summer (well the weather was just a bit wet!)
Pigs are very short sighted and your use of the cardboard is the same as using traditional 'pig boards' These are like humongous chopping boards that you hold at the side of the pigs head and it thinks its a solid wall and goes where you want it to (well most of the time!!!!!!!!)

ash said...

we have pigs here at the blue hippo farm who are fully free roaming. the poeple who stay in the tipi village feed the pigs kitchen scraps and leftovers. the few issues that we do have, however, is that they will happily tuck into any food that is within reach, they munch through the dog's food, and even tear into the dog food packet if they can reach it. apart from that, we don't regularly feed them, and they are fat and happy. our chickens also range freely and are also self fed. they hang out near the stables and the forest, so are well shaded. the two issues with this are that we seldom find eggs, and sometimes one of the dogs will take out a chicken. lots of animal politics! but it keeps us on our toes. perhaps one day we will have a more contained system in place. for now though, things are working fine :o)

Stuart and Gabrielle said...

Hi Ash!

Thanks for your comment. From the pigs' point of view, yours have it great and I'm sure that they're happy and healthy.
In Europe, because of the risk of Foot and Mouth Disease, it is forbidden to feed animals food leftovers, particularly anything that has even touched a piece of meat, so we do need to monitor what they get given.
They've had a great diet over the year, including an excess of plums, then apples, then fallen acorns along with free stale bread from the bakery and also proprietary pig food.
When we slaughtered them, they were a bit too fat and so, with more experience, we'll try to control their weight a little better next time around ... as for the pigs, they never get bored of eating!
Our chickens are completely free-range and we've lost a total of six over the eighteen months we've been here, all to two neighbours' dogs. The two dogs in question are now kept restrained by their owners and we've had no further problems.