The 12 Principles of Permaculture

The 12 principles of permaculture (and it's application to Cressbrook Dale)

‘It is our intention to grow organic vegetables on the sunniest areas of land and ultimately to create a site which is fully self-sustaining in terms of water, food and energy.’

So claims page 13 of the Cressbrook Dale Estate Information Pack. The new owners of this tranquil, picturesque and previously unspoilt part of the Peak District National Park are proposing permaculture-based practice as being at the heart of their vision.

This article aims to outline the 12 principles of permaculture and in what manner the new owners already fall short of these in their first few weeks of custodianship.

Adherence to the 12 principles of permaculture in the Dale

(1) Observe and interact

This is always listed as the first principle by permaculture practitioners. Observation of the site is fundamental to sustainable and successful use. Failure to analyse a plot in depth can lead to costly mistakes, loss of crops and inhabitants (human and otherwise) and, ultimately, despondency.

This principle should be continuous, but is also useful if instigated before land is taken on to avoid disappointment.

There are many elements to observe including soil structure and pH; existing structures, flora and fauna; the movement of the sun through all seasons; prevailing wind directions and frost pockets; topography. Any plot of land can produce something for the permaculturist, although they must abide by its essential nature.

In context;

The nature of Cressbrook Dale makes it a particularly problematic space to utilise from a permaculture/food forest perspective. It consists mainly of steep slopes which do not lend themselves to annual or biennial crop production. Earth movement would be massive and detrimental to soil ecology, rather than gentle (as in No Dig methodology, for example).

Most of the land is wooded and these cannot be harvested for fuel or construction due to existing tree preservation orders.

Access to much of the 72 acres is challenging because of narrow lanes, precipitous land and limited parking.

The Cressbrook Dale Estate Information Pack describes the “the land” as enjoying ‘sunshine from aproximately [sic] 9am to 4pm’ – not applicable in every season and an instant example of misinformation towards the reader.

(2) Catch and store energy

Permaculture aims for independence from the National Grid and other centralised sources. Natural energy sources are harnessed to this end: namely solar, wind and hydro power. Bio-gas is another option should enough natural waste be available.

Cressbrook Dale has no reliable source of water for drinking, washing or irrigation. The watercourse itself is a winterbourne and vanishes for a large part of the year. Rainfall beneath a wooded canopy is drastically restricted: great for soil erosion, poor for water capture.

Current shifts in climate mean the British Isles experience more dramatic weather extremes, so water storage may not be trustworthy either for a larger number of people, crops or livestock through the spring and summer months.

While Cressbrook is a windy location, the ability to catch this energy is limited by legal restrictions on land use. Similarly, solar panels won’t be permitted in the dale and another source is lost.

(3) Obtain a yield

Permaculture is ultimately about obtaining resources from the land in many guises: food, fuel, shelter.

As discussed under principle (1), the topography and untouchable ecosystem established on Cressbrook Dale is at odds with the collection of firewood and timber or the cultivation of crops.

Any plants they’ve introduced to date are untenable in this environment. Mediterranean herbs have been positioned in damp and shady spots, demonstrating an absence of horticultural/botanical knowledge which may extend to their other planned crops.

(4) Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

This fourth principle is closely allied with the first and twelfth. Efficient use of a plot requires not just observation, but open-minded and honest analysis. The practitioner must study what works to repeat the pattern going forward. Likewise they must reflect on failures and errors to ensure future success.

The new owners of Cressbrook Dale have so far proven themselves unwilling to accept feedback from any source that doesn’t line up with their own beliefs and expectations. Seemingly they failed to assess the appropriateness of the land to farming or note the eagerness of Stanton Estates to relieve themselves of it after an ’89-year era of involvement’.

Such closed-mindedness does not bode well for a group tending the land.

(5) Use and value renewable resources and services

(6) Produce no waste

Principles five and six are closely related to each other as well as the second principle above. Much of permaculture is about “closing the circle”, i.e. retaining all forms of energy and matter within your own plot. Energy may of course come from outside, like the sun or clouds, but it should be fed into the plants, animals and humans tending the land.

Fuels should come from sources listed in principle (2), or from coppiced trees and shrubs.

When it comes to producing no waste, a shift in thinking is necessary. Animal and human faeces can be composted alongside vegetation to feed back into the soil, although faeces should not be applied to annual and biennial crops to minimise disease. Old clothing, tools and other items should be re-purposed wherever possible, and made from natural materials to reduce long-lasting planetary pollution.

These two principles cannot be followed by the new owners of Cressbrook Dale. They are unable to live on the land, so must travel to and from it. This increases their carbon footprint significantly through the burning of fuels they haven’t farmed themselves, the emissions of which escape into the atmosphere at large. Even electric vehicles run on power garnered from external producers.

The composting of human waste is not feasible in the delicate environment dale. Human waste must be left below ground to decompose for at least 12 months, thus requiring a permanent shelter structure that would not be granted permission. If urine and faeces are not composted they become nothing more than waste to be dealt with beyond the confines of the dale. In the context of the permeable limestone substrate like Cressbrook Dale it is actually illegal to attempt the composting of human waste on site as it will gradually percolate through the limestone and find its way into the water course down stream and from there into the drinking water supply.

(7) Design from patterns to details

This is probably the trickiest principle to describe. Effectively it entails observing natural patterns and designing your structures and crop beds in their image. The benefit of this is the idea Nature knows best. Spirals, webs and branching networks can all be observed in the wild and each pattern has a benefit the permaculturist can invoke.

The new owners state they have no definite plans for Cressbrook Dale. This implies they haven’t contemplated natural patterns nor thought through how they could apply these. It’s apparent from their activities so far that little thought has gone into the siting of any structures, let alone whatever crop beds they may move onto.

(8) Integrate rather than segregate and ...

(10) Use and value diversity

Permaculture places great emphasis on inclusion rather than exclusion. All people should be welcome and their different skills appreciated and applied. The role all creatures have to play in an environment must be borne in mind. Existing elements on the land should be worked with rather than against. The practitioner aims to keep existent trees, waterways and structures, fitting these into their design rather than interfering with them.

Integration doesn’t appear to be a key ethos of the new owners. Their approach to the existing community has been one of imposition and ignorance above consideration and compassion.

Such compassion and treading lightly has also failed to extend to the land itself so far. Unnatural elements such as plastic and gravel alien to the area have been brought into the dale. Soft vegetation-covered paths have been excavated in favour of harsh trenches.

(9) Use small and slow solutions

The importance of careful observation arises time and again in permaculture and food forestry. Small and slow solutions go hand-in-hand with this approach. Rushing into activities and developments often results in avoidable mistakes that may be irrevocable down the line.

Several changes so far have involved the use of heavy machinery like tractors and diggers, which causes soil compaction and erosion and kills micro-organisms and tree roots.

This appears to have been in the name of expediency which in the long term may backfire. It’s impossible to say at this stage whom such errors will impact the most: the new owners or the precious ecosystem with which they’re interacting.

(11) Use edges and value the marginal

Boundaries are often amongst the most productive spaces, physically and temporally. Edges tend to offer benefits to a larger range of organisms where they overlap. Consider where woodland thins out into open pasture. Established trees benefit from sunlight, but so do shorter plants beneath them. Young saplings can start out their life thanks to the reduced competition for resources. The wider range of plants attracts a greater array of insects. This draws in more birds and small mammals which have the sanctuary of the woodland yet the diversity of the meadow and its margins. Riverbanks and pool edges are equally varied.

Unfortunately the new owners of Cressbrook Dale seem only interested in edges and margins as the site of their human activities: teepees for shelter and gatherings, toilets and tents, car parking and artificial pools.

(12) Creatively use and respond to change

The twelfth and final principle closes the circle, taking the adherent back to step one: observing and interacting with their land.

Effective observation and interaction notices changes coming. It facilitates proactive tending of the land, allowing the impact of factors like drought or flood to be mitigated.

The restrictions placed on Cressbrook Dale by its location – at the heart of a National Park, surrounded by villages, abutting a conservation area and SSSI – severely impedes any creative and quick response to change. Strict planning regulations quite rightly apply to so many aspects of land use in these parts that the new owners will struggle to adapt speedily without incurring penalties and the unhappiness of the many parties with a connection to the Dale.

The inappropriateness of such land

The conclusion can clearly be drawn that the new owners of Cressbrook Dale are failing to adhere to the 12 key principles of permaculture. It’s questionable to what extent they were even aware of these before acquiring such a substantial enclave of land, nor how eager they will be to investigate the principles further.

Meditation on the principles may perhaps have opened their eyes to the inappropriateness of such land as the dale for their declared intentions of self-sufficiency, reduced environmental impact and retreat from a failing societal system.

The expertise of an experienced permaculture practitioner would be invaluable to the new owners, although their current approach to non-members of their group implies this input may not be well received.

You will find more detailed information on permaculture by visiting the Permaculture Association’s website or checking out Permaculture Magazine.