The reason for our vast guinea-pig horde is as follows:
Long ago, when people started farming, ie planting seeds of the plants they wanted for eating rather than trailing around eating what they came across, it pretty soon became clear that if you expected the soil to go through the effort of producing non-indigenous, non-evolved vegetation (“crops”, as we say), then you also had to let it “rest”, ie allow it to heal itself and return somewhat to its natural state. It soon became obvious that allowing animals the run of this resting land didn’t do it any harm, in fact helped it along because of the redistribution of nutrients involved particularly through the interplay of micro-organisms in the soil and from the animals’ gut, and no doubt because of other interchanges more subtle, too. You thus had the basis of what became the “run-rigg” method of farming, ie you alternated your land by using it for several years of “ridging”, that is, cropping, followed by several years of resting when you ran animals on it. Eventually of course the easily-obtainable meat these animals represented became too seductive a thought, so their numbers were increased such that nowadays a huge proportion of your rigg-land is taken up with providing for your vastly overpopulated run-land.
Anyway, the idea of our piggies is to provide about four years of “rest” to the land that we spend six years overworking and expecting to produce the kind of food we prefer to eat. It’s an uncomfortable arrangement, in that we would much rather they had the free run of the land, but that would simply be asking for a guinea-pig holocaust, as dogs and cats and buzzards would all find them fairly irresistible and they have practically no notion of self-preservation other than their sex-drive. So we have to strike some sort of compromise to keep them relatively happy at the same time as being useful for our system.
The idea is to have three moveable circular enclosures (we’ve built two so far), about 24 feet in diameter, in which they spend the summer. This gives them plenty of room to move, plenty of opportunity to throng together, which they also like doing, and the kids can go into the runs quite comfortably and everyone seems to enjoy the child-pig communication.
The grass in the runs (mainly timothy-grass so far) generally gets eaten down in a couple of weeks or so, and we’re looking at the possibility of introducing a grass that’ll put up with harder grazing, ie cocksfoot, but so far we’ve been dogged by germination problems, although it’s perfectly happy to sow itself on places of its own choosing. After it’s well-and truly chewed down we start cutting grass and putting it into them, so indulging their predilection for a bit of gentle burrowing. As the season progresses the grass gets stemmier and harder and they “waste” increasing amounts of it, till by October we’re actually cutting dead grass for them whose nutritional value resides in the sparse new growth that’s coming away from the base. This dead grass builds up into a considerable mound in the run and the pigs disappear into it, emerging only when they hear a fresh batch coming (“guinea-pig forts”, Callum and Cathi call them). The net result of all this activity is that the grass gets killed and the ground gets well-dunged, and so is well-prepared for the start of the crop-rotation the following year, in which potatoes are the pioneer crop. Yields have been very good so far – and I entertain a magical notion that because both the guinea-pig tribe and the potato tribe originated in the same land the guinea-pigs leave some extra virtue in the ground which aids the health of the potatoes – though this year I got my fingers burned by not drawing the dead grass completely away from the plot as the potatoes started to come up: I had noticed hundreds of slug-eggs in the ground, but thought that they probably wouldn’t care for much potato-stems or leaves; and in this I was much mistaken. If potato tops are poisonous, our local slugs certainly haven’t noticed. So I’ll be working over the ground after the pigs have gone indoors this winter, with a couple of sturdy hens at my side as I do it.
There’s actually a good chance that the colony could survive the winter outdoors insulated under their vast pile of dead grass (I’ll try and get a photo of this later in the year), but it’s certainly nicer for the kids to have them overwintering in a shed, probably a bit nicer for the pigs too, and in addition there’s a whole winter’s-worth of excellent dung all ready for composting come the following spring.
The rotation of the five crops that’ll follow the potatoes (beans, beets, brassicas, carrots, garlic, leeks, onions, peas and three different grains) is still under consideration, as local conditions have to be the ruling principle here and we’re still working out what those are, but three years of grass/clover/herbs are supposed to follow before the guinea-pigs are finally released to do their season’s work of destruction on it.
Do we “use” the guinea pigs – ie do we kill them? That is a bit of a contentious issue. Maddy absolutely won’t let us, and as they are really hers and Ellie’s – that is, the forefathers and mothers of all of them were their bedroom pets – we are obliged to watch and wait and hope that sense eventually replaces sentimentality. One can see her point of course, they’re extremely companionable – I believe they’re one of the oldest companions of humankind, though to this day their companionship is expected to transcend death in their native land, where their newly-killed bodies are still used to diagnose illness (this information comes from Paul’s sister Mary, who has spent most of her adult life in Ecuador, and was most flabbergasted to see our team of cuyos at Coldhome). We have eaten the odd one or two, from the time the dogs were regularly killing them: the kids liked them but I found them a bit tasteless and very bony, though their livers/hearts etc., made a good “pudding”. The skins would be a great resource if we could get proper skill at processing them.
The trouble with not killing them of course means that their numbers increase exponentially over a season. Maddy wants to sell the excess, but I always demur on account of how I don’t like the idea of their being confined for evermore to little cages where they can’t at least exercise their ten-metre sprinting skills. So the matter gets left; but they do have a natural self-regulator: they die extremely easily. I understand that in the wild they have no “natural predators”, meaning mammals or birds. Micro-predators they do have though, in the form of internal “guests”, and they are susceptible to colds and to any ailments engendered by wet conditions. They seem able to withstand considerable levels of cold weather, but wet weather, even in the middle of summer, can be devastating. When we got back from last year’s Keith Show, which was eventually called off because of continuous rain, we found the bodies of no less than seventeen young pigs, some of them still upright, as though they had died in their tracks as they ran for shelter in one of the houses. You can be fairly certain that a guinea-pig that you find looking poorly will be dead within the day. However, I’d still rather just kill them quick and save them even that amount of distress.