Permaculture and land use in the English countryside

What is Permaculture?

Integrated farming systems

Soil management


Permaculture education

Government embraces rural enterprise reform

It is not necessary to invoke another crisis in livestock farming to appreciate a continuing need for appraisal of land use in the English Countryside. The report from the Policy and Innovation Unit - Rural Economies (1999) - signalled the Government's intention to set in train a review of the constraints on business use of rural land. The Rural White Paper that followed - Our Countryside: The Future (2000) - began the process of identifying legislation in need of reform and in signalling Government action on both farming and the countryside. The White Paper built on the Government's New Direction for Agriculture (1999) and the Action Plan for Farming (2000) and shows the link between the medium-term future of our countryside and the new funding streams developed through the EC Rural Development Regulation - the second pillar of support of the Common Agricultural Policy. Government has thus targeted 1.6 billion of this funding over the next seven years, through the England Rural Development Programme (ERDP) for initiatives that will enable rural enterprise to better meet the needs of consumers, increase the ability to adapt and diversify, and to ensure that development and enterprise is carried out in an environmentally responsible way.

In introducing the ERDP in October 2000, Nick Brown, Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, highlighted the need for change in rural areas. He explained that the ERDP takes a broad view of the needs of rural areas and that the programme offers an integrated set of schemes that emphasise regional and local issues and which encourage the development of ideas at grassroots level. Mr Brown sought the continued involvement of the partnerships formed in putting the programme together and called for all others with an interest to play their part.

I agree with the need for change in rural areas and support the broad-view approach adopted in the ERDP. It is also my belief that Permaculture has much that is complimentary with this approach and thus can have a role to play in that change. Thus I hope to show that the application of Permaculture through its well-established design methodology can help in producing many of the outcomes sought in the ERDP and in other strategies developed by the Government, such as in the draft Soil Strategy for England (2001), Towards Sustainable Agriculture: A Pilot Set of Indicators (2000), exploration of non-food crops in the Food Chain and Crops for Industry Panel initiative of the Foresight programme (2000) and the forestry strategy in A New Focus for England's Woodlands (1998).

What is Permaculture? -top

Permaculture is an evidence-based earth science arising from protracted observation of natural systems. The practical application of Permaculture is through a design system that combines key principles and methodologies emerging from the earth science with traditional macro design processes that would be familiar in engineering and landscape architecture. It's land use application is sometimes described as ecological engineering or cultivated ecology.

The aim of Permaculture Design is to provide sustainable solutions for living systems, whether people, animal or plant. An ethical framework underpins Permaculture and the design process, and it strengthens the potential for success in achieving this aim. The framework is very similar to but predates the values espoused by the Bruntland Commission to define sustainable development (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) and which were explored in detail in Agenda 21 delivered at the first Earth Summit (UN Conference on Environment and Development, 1992). Thus the design process looks at the whole system and seeks to integrate the effective working of all of its components while minimising external inputs and closing the cycles of resource use. People and their social structures are fully represented components in the whole-system design as Permaculture actively seeks co-operation and participation in the design process and in the design solution.

Permaculture Design was developed during the seventies and as such has had little time to create an impact. Where it has been successful, it is mainly in rural areas often undergoing climatic or interventionary stress, or where indigenous populations seek to make better use of their land resources. In some regions of the world, it has taken its place alongside other extension services provided through external funding.

In England, with its predominantly urban population, the use of Permaculture design is seen most in community initiated projects that have a significant element of people involvement. The adoption of Local Agenda 21 processes in many local authority areas has been a fertile ground for its development. Its adoption in rural areas has been much less, reflecting possibly the conservative nature of our rural land use, but also the continuing immobility of rural land between current users and would-be new users.

I consider the immobility of rural land to be a significant restraint on one potential driver for rural change. However, the main purpose of this article is to identify the support that Permaculture design can provide to present rural land users seeking that change and who may do this through existing strategies and programmes.

Permaculture complements government themes for agriculture

I have identified a number of current Government themes in rural development that I believe are complimentary with Permaculture and which could benefit from its involvement. While farming for food is the predominant land use in the English Countryside, the thrust of the ERDP is to support in addition the development of non-food land uses such as forestry, energy crops and crops for industry. In a broader sense, the programmes to promote environmental management are also a land use since they emphasise biodiversity. The Countryside Stewardship Scheme in particular, targets the conservation and enhancement of English landscapes, its features and habitats such as chalk and limestone grassland, lowland heath, watersides, coasts, uplands, historic landscapes, traditional orchards, old meadows and pastures, the countryside around towns including Community Forests, traditional field boundaries and the margins of arable fields. Thus farming takes on a a much wider role in the landscape and we believe this role could be exemplified by a descriptive term that has increasing currency - Integrated Farming Systems (IFS)

Integrated farming systems -top

IFS arose from the growing concern over the impact that the heavy use of chemical inputs in agricultural production might have on the environment. Chemical inputs present a dilemma for both farmers and society because these inputs seem to have positive effects on the quantity and quality of farm products, while at the same time imposing costs on farmers, as well as on society. For instance, the use of synthetic pesticides in crop protection programs around the world has resulted in disturbances of the environment, pest resurgence, resistance to pesticides, and sometimes lethal effects on non-target organisms. This has led to the development of a range of evidence-based farm management systems that provide an alternative to that mainstream. Farming systems that use Integrated Crop Management and Integrated Pest Control and which consider the farm on a whole-system basis are using a wide range of approaches to integrate natural processes into agricultural production. An exemplar of this is the LEAF (Linking Environment and Farmers) programme initiated by the National Agricultural Centre, through which landowners are given support to develop and carry out whole farm plans. We understand the Government supports the need for development of IFS and we welcome this.

The aims through this whole-system approach are conserving resources, minimizing external inputs through a greater reliance on craft and management skills combined with contemporary and timely information, and of minimal cultivation techniques where appropriate. These aims are entirely consistent with the principles and practice of Permaculture. The reduction in use of synthetic external inputs that results creates a continuum of improving farming practice. I believe that IFS will have the greatest chance of overall acceptance by the farming community, and thus this continuum has the potential to deliver a significant beneficial impact across the whole of the English countryside.

Permaculture has as a principle the creation and maintenance of biodiversity through enhancement or creation of habitats and regeneration of landscapes. This is an important contribution to IFS in that it can provide the refuges for beneficial pest predators that substitute for the use of synthetic pesticides. These habitats may also make a contribution to overall farm productivity by the choice of plant and tree species.

Soil management -top

Agricultural soils are subject to continuous extractive processes through farming, but they can be managed to make a significant contribution to biodiversity. I welcome the drafting of the first strategy for soil in England. In that strategy, it is recognized that agri-environment schemes (Environmentally Sensitive Areas Scheme, the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and the Organic Farming Scheme) play their part by focussing on sympathetic land management and particularly through farmers adhering to the Soil Code (The Code of Good Agricultural Practice for the Protection of Soil, 1998).

The reduction and more careful use of artificial fertilizers and the better management of landspreading of organic manures are key elements of this good soil management. Permaculture however places a greater emphasis on strategies that obviate the need for external inputs and which allow long-term sustainable land use. The goal is to make effective use of all the soil's resources in a location rather than just those contained and externally replaced in topsoil. Physical mixing of soil horizons is not effective and traditionally, remineralising of topsoil has been carried out by growing suitably deep rooting plants and the use of legumes. Deciduous trees through their leaf litter are able to cycle minerals between subsoils and topsoils. In addition to trees, Permaculture practitioners use deep rooting herbaceous perennials and monocarpic plants (as well as the legumes) to achieve this in a deliberate and demonstrable way. Thus it is not reliant on the philosophic assumption of other farming systems that rely on rotations and return of crop residues, livestock and manuring, all processes that seem only to recycle or horizontally redistribute topsoil nutrient.

Agroforestry -top

I welcome the Woodland Grant Scheme and the Farm Woodland Protection Scheme as being drivers to increase woodland coverage in the English Countryside, and obtain the recognised benefits of trees. It needs to be explored whether these schemes can be utilised to broaden the use of trees in farming in the form of agroforestry, and thus promote in addition long-term sustainable land use. One form of agroforestry is a combination of grazing underneath productive trees planted at a low density. Traditionally, this would have been called wood pasture. The contemporary term agroforestry, however, stresses the varied and productive potential of both elements such that the ground cover could be arable or market garden crops instead of pasture and the trees could provide fruit, wood and timber.

The Energy Crops Scheme of the ERDP is to be welcomed as evidence of the Government's recognition that an increasing number of non-food plant substitutes will be needed for many of the non-renewable resources that society consumes today. They will certainly be a new commercial opportunity for farmers and it is important that applications to the scheme are to be subjected to environmental checks to ensure the environmental impacts are minimized. As the Forestry Commission has demonstrated, suitable location and design are significant factors in developing short rotation coppice in the landscape.

This task would be familiar work for a Permaculture Designer who seeks always to successfully match plants and trees to the various conditions found in the landscape, allowing quite often a considerably greater diversity than previously existed. It is probably for this reason that a recent report on Crops for Sustainable Enterprise (2000) produced for The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, concluded that Permaculture provided one of the ideal routes for sustainable non-food crop production. The Permaculture Association (Britain) maintains a register of experienced and professionally qualified Permaculture Designers who can provide their services to land users, or the land users themselves can be trained in Permaculture Design.

Permaculture education -top

I noted the government consultation last year on training that will assist with the modernisation and improvement of agricultural and forestry holdings (Consultation on England Rural Development Plan: proposals for a training scheme, May 2000). I welcome the Vocational Training Scheme (VTS) that has arisen from it. The emphasis on a "needs based" and vocational approach to the training, delivered "in location" makes this scheme another powerful driver for rural change. It has similarities with the delivery of Permaculture education, as will be described below, and we will be exploring the potential for the VTS to enable Permaculture training in rural areas.

Permaculture education has a Design Course at its centre. This course delivers a developed system of design principles and tools, and a body of core knowledge that enables the designer to tackle many settings, whether urban or rural, people or place. Much of our understanding of Permaculture relies on seeing the whole picture. Thus training in Permaculture Design follows the same pattern where learners are immersed in a comprehensive and concerted programme of a 72-hour course for the Certificate of Permaculture Design. It is unlikely to be understood or well learnt in a piecemeal fashion. Additional topics in the course, outside of the core subjects, relate either to the local conditions of where the course is taking place or to the particular strengths and experience of the teachers. The Permaculture Association (Britain) supports Permaculture teachers and development of the Certificate course through its education programme.

Permaculture Design teachers are used to a peripatetic delivery of their service as they are often responding to the self-identified demand in communities and their locations for Permaculture education. Most teachers are also experienced working Permaculture Designers, who have continued their professional development by attaining the Diploma of Permaculture Design after a minimum period of two years of applying Permaculture Design. The Diploma is awarded by peer review through the Permaculture Academy (Britain) and it entitles the holder to have use of the word Permaculture in relation to design enterprises and public services. Permaculture is a word whose copyright is vested by its originator Bill Mollinson in national Permaculture organisations and their graduate associations. This was recognised as a means to safeguard consistency in Permaculture education and in the representation of Permaculture services. It thus serves a similar function to produce assurance schemes, but certifies the person rather than the process or product, as is the case in most professions.

Mark Fisher, 3 May 2001