Permaculture Explained (Volume III Issue 11): Use Edges and Value the Marginal

"Don't think you are on the right track just because it is a well beaten path"

I work and live on a small hill farm in the depths of the Yorkshire Dales. I keep two Hereford cows and their calves for small-scale meat and dairy production plus soil fertility for my edible garden.

Three years ago I was given permission to graze the edges of surrounding commercial forestry land. These had been ungrazed for over 30 years nor had artificial additions. As a result, where the trees are sparsely planted, there is a rich mix of grasses and plant life.

Over this time I’ve observed that:

My cows are happy, healthy and content. There is no need to confine them using fencing as they have their favorite places to ‘nest’ under trees and are reliably found there.

They are free to behave without a lot of the restraints that humans create for them and as a result are relaxed, happy and easy to handle (if needed). The range wide range of grasses and herbs available have improved their general health and reduced the need for vet treatments.

The cows graze around newly planted trees, which they do not eat. The trees are growing bigger and more healthier than those planted in other areas of the forest perhaps thanks to the extra nutrients from the cow poo and less grass competition. Deer do not like grazing in the same area as the cows so have not damaged the trees.

The cows spend long periods of time outside over the winter when usually they would be in a barn to protect the pasture from damage. The variety of plants and their root systems growing on the forestry edge, plus protection from the trees, has meant that the damage to the ground in this area is much less.

This has reduced the need for bought in straw and feed thus cutting down the human effort input to take them to water, muck out etc.

The abundance of flowers and herbs that fill the meadows spring and summer time are appearing in the grazed forestry edge and with it an increase in bees, butterflies and birds of prey.

My observations haven’t been measured in any way, but the obvious benefits to utilising the holistic productiveness of edge and margin in permaculture design could be a consideration in large-scale food / fuel production.