Guinea-pigs as working animals!

An excuse to chat about animals in Permaculture

Animals are an integral part of Permaculture Design, but they need to be carefully selected to integrate into the eco-system, & not introduced to it until the system is sufficiently developed to sustain them. They are there to use excess food, especially things which humans cannot eat such as grass & foliage, & turn it into fertiliser; they may also turn it into food in the form of eggs, meat or milk; & provide other useful products, such as wool, skins, feathers, or horn. Animals are great company, & have valuable educational functions, especially if they are allowed to be themselves, rather than having human characteristics projected onto them. Many are excellent warning systems, & some are effective guard animals. Animals suitable for Permaculture systems range from crocodiles & camels to quail & worms. The choice depends on the scale, location, & requirements of the particular system.

My garden is so small that at first I wondered if it could sustain any domestic animals at all. One needs to take account not only of the possibilities in an ideal situation, but also of the constraints imposed by the realities.
I have kept bees in the past, but here they were not a practial proposition - if any one of my neighbours objected to my keeping a hive, the Local Authority would have withdrawn permission for it. Also, as I grow older, I am less able to carry out required physical work to order. I need to wait until reasonably temperate weather coincides with good energy & low pain levels. Bees need to be worked at their timing, not yours. Nor did it seem possible to have movable poultry pens in the jungle I have intentionally created here. I already have a myriad wild & introduced species of bird, who carry out insect control & regularly turn over the mulch for me; When they fertilise the garden with their droppings, they spread them around, whereas poultry pens have to be manually cleaned & the droppings composted & spread. I decided against keeping pigeons for similar reasons, although a small colony in a dovecot would have been fine for scale.
A few years ago I tried running a couple of bantams wild in the backyard, but it was disastrous! Within 2 or 3 days they had decimated all the young seedlings. They insisted on roosting on the ridge of the roof, so that much of their manure found it's way into my rainwater tank, & needed much more food than the garden & my neighbours food scraps could supply. I managed to catch one within a few days & return her to her former home, but the other eluded me for months. She laid no eggs, & it took two years for my understorey annuals to re-establish themselves!

Maxine(cafe au lait colour) Polly (black with tan nose) & Mrs.Spice.

So I decided to try guinea-pigs again. I had previously kept a large colony of these delightful little animals, in the large well-fenced garden of a rented house, containing only lawn & some established grape-vines. The cavies required no extra food beyond our fruit & vegetable scraps, & while they bred to a sizeable colony, it reached an optimal size, & then stayed stable. The lawn never needed mowing or fertilising, and observing the colony was fascinating & rewarding. My children did some research, & then constructed two 'castles' of bricks & rock, kept stable with a little cement, designed to simulate the guinea-pigs natural habitat in the stonier regions of the Andes. Not only did the little creatures really enjoy their homes, but they were safe inside them from most predators.
Some years later my youngest daughter & I moved into a suburban unit with a small garden. We dug over one half of the lawn & planted vegetables, & to keep the remaining grass mown, two guinea-pigs in a 'tractor' - a lightly constructed pen with bedroom attached - were moved around the lawn as they ate the grass. Each mown patch was well-watered, to prevent the guinea-pig urine, which is very concentrated, from burning the grass. The ready-pelletised manure was easily swept into a dustpan, & used to fertilise the vegetable garden. My daughter had two delightful & easily cared-for pets, & they more than earned their keep, although we had to supplement their diet with some grass pellets, because the lawn was so small, & two people do not have many scraps.

At the RainbowWeb, I planned to have a medium-sized free-range colony once the cat-proof fence was complete. But I underestimated the amount of food & space needed, & soon had to buy pellets, confine the animals, & eventually cull the colony.
While I sometimes eat wild meat & free-range poultry, I found myself unable to use my surplus guinea-pigs for meat. So they were taken to the local Zoo, & after carefully re-calculating their needs & available food supplies, I kept three females, who for about two years free-ranged in the front yard, principally an orchard. Their foraging for grass, weeds, & other greens such as sweet potato, was supplemented by excess foliage from the back garden, grass & weeds from neighbouring gardens & surrounding streets, or provided by a gardener friend when his clients do not have a compost system, & by fruit & vegetable scraps from half a dozen or so nearby households, glad to have an ecologically sound 'insinkerator', & who enjoy watching the guinea-pigs. These items, & bread scraps, are left at my gate in plastic bags or re-usable containers nearly every day, & it has rarely been necessary to feed the guinea-pigs anything else.
Last year I planted more bulbs under the apple, persimmon & elderberry trees, hoping to create a woodland look in springtime. Jonquils & daffodils were already established there, but I longed to have drifts of flowers to simulate the woodlands of my homeland.
Those b***** guinea-pigs ate all my freezias!
So I corralled them under the almond tree, & now have to buy more bulbs & replant. Mrs.Spice, Maxine, & Polly have shade in the summer, sunshine in winter, shelter from winged predators, & the same varied food supply, but I pull any grass or weeds in the front yard by hand & throw them to the animals, instead of letting them forage for themselves. I can also watch them while working at the computer, which is very soothing.

A guinea-pig whose diet is not supplemented by complex carbohydrates can eat up to 5 times it's own weight in green stuff every day! They seldom drink under these conditions, getting all their water from their food, though I like to have a source of clean water available in hot weather, as well as a shallow dish of water which they can use as a bath.
Guinea-pigs are rodents, so they need plenty of rough chewing to stop their teeth getting too long. If they have no twigs or other sources of wood to chew, they will ring-bark shrubs & small trees. Their claws also need rough surfaces to keep them short. Mine have been provided with double-holed besser blocks turned on their sides, as 'caves'. The size is just right, they stay cool if shaded, dry if placed on a moisture barrier, & keep my girls' toenails well-manicured. Though they have one double block each, they often crowd into the same 'cave', one or other tumbling from the back entrance when anyone tries to change places! A discarded kitchen bin placed on its side provides a large dry area in extreme conditions, & this has newspaper regularly placed on the floor to keep it warm, dry, & sweet. This is easily torn into strips & put into the mulch or composted when replaced.

If indulged, guinea-pigs can be as fussy about their food as children or other badly-trained animals. This time my original stock came from a family who had fed them on pizza, & they were hooked!. It took quite a while to get them eating anything but grass pellets & they pined for pizza. Everytime I collected a pizza-box for recycling (I sort recyclables for most of my neighbours), they would shriek 'gimme, gimme, gimme!', hoping for some scraps.
They have a keen sense of smell, & I know when food has been left for them, because they can smell it & call out for me to 'get it, quick!' . They refuse all greenstuff containing high levels of oxalic acid, such as spinach, silver beet(swiss chard) amaranth & pigweeds, & these are in fact not good for them. The greens they get from my yard are mainly Jerusalem artichokes - both foliage & tubers - choko prunings, arundo donax, & pussy willow, the tough twigs of which keep their teeth short & sharp. They also eat windfall fruit & excess chokos & pumpkins. Melon rinds are a real treat, especially in hot weather, & they love apples, but will eat most fruit peels, including banana skins if they are fresh. They enjoy bread, which should be very stale, or they gulp it down & get indigestion. Fresh grass clippings give them enteritis, as does too much lettuce, but dried grass clippings are fine, while if they are given hay or straw for bedding, they will eat a fair bit of it - they also eat shredded paper, as I discovered when I used this instead! I suppose it's just another source of cellulose to them! My daughter often took our two lawn-mowers to bed with her, & we found they also relish blankets & the yellow spines of National Geographic Magazines. Guinea-pigs must have a regular supply of vitamin C - like humans, & unlike other animals, they cannot manufacture it in the gut. And they need some grass or hay every day, the long fibres keep their digestive systems working properly.
They are smart little creatures - they have learnt to associate my gardener's bike with lush grass & dandelions, so they shriek in frustration if a cyclist passes us without stopping! Before being confined, they would rush squealing to the gate whenever someone approached it, whether or not they could smell food & my guinea-pig 'early warning system' became a local joke. The rustle of a plastic bag sends them into paroxysms of anticipation.
A small group of guinea-pigs can easily become bored! Placing strange objects in their pen, or just re-arranging & cleaning it, will keep them happily amused for several days. (But leave their very favourite places alone - they like to have a familiar safe retreat.) A few bricks, or a heap of firewood that needs seasoning - guinea-pigs love scrambling, as well as exploring - is ideal, but they also love tunnels, made of small lengths of piping (not too tight a sqeeze, please!) cubbies made from cardboard cartons, & old phone books, while a heap of shredded paper will heave & squeak for ages as they play hide & seek beneath it. Oh yes! remember that, while guinea-pigs can't dig, they can & will scrape, especially if the ground is soft & damp! Their noses can push very hard, & it doesn't take long for a smart little pig to escape from an insecurely constructed pen.

There are few systems which cannot support a useful animal of some kind, besides those which 'visit'. Be original, even outrageous in your choices, responsible in caring for them, & meticulous in keeping them sustainable.

Important Note(April 1999)Recently I made a fascinating discovery - since moving my guinea-pigs into their very large pen about nine months ago, I haven't cleaned out their living quarters. On removing the roof of their largest undercover area today, I discovered, instead of the soggy smelly mess I expected to find, a well-constructed warm & dry floor! Mrs.Spice, Polly & Maxine have made dung & guinea-pig hair into a thick cement slab, presumably by using their urine to wet the mixture, & then trampling it until it became a homogenous mass which has dried out. making a floor not unlike the cow-dung floors of some tribal huts! Perhaps guinea-pigs do this as a matter of course in their natural habitat - if anyone can give me more information about this, I would love to hear from them.

For the small household, do consider the guinea-pig. Easy to house & keep clean, it has few diseases, can be kept out-of-doors, if protected from predators, all year round in a wide range of climates , & during the summer where winters are severe. They can even be kept by people who have no garden, adapting easily to indoor living. Guinea-pigs are small, cuddly, sociable, vocal, curious, intelligent, dispose of a wide range of organic garbage, & produce lots of high class-fertiliser. Lawn-mower extraordinaire, & if you wish, a delightful companion animal. Some even have their own websites! If you don't believe me, search GOOGLE for guinea-pigs.


Mrs.Spice & Maxine died in April 1999. Polly joined them in September.

Here is the sad story

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