I have owned two cats in my life and loved them both, though I consider myself a dog person.
Their effect at rodent control was staggering. They would each go on walkabout whenever suited them, and so the rodents usually showed up in their absence. When they returned, the change was marked.
I still remember my Russian Blue/Grey Tabby cross playing with a mouse, until he decided he was hungry, and then he'd usually eat the head. *Pop, crack, crunch, slurp* and off to find another. Though on occasions where there were multiples at once, he'd often stun them, killing them if they were likely to get away, and playing with the last one as long as he liked; he never let any go.
I think the cat's place in permaculture is a niche that isn't really filled by other animals in toto; there might be some overlap between the work terriers do and what birds of prey manage around a homestead, but nothing else does exactly what a cat can.
That said, they can be as destabilising as any invasive animal. And yes, cats share all the attributes of an invasive plant or animal: they reproduce readily, have the ability to sustain themselves without human intervention and overwinter, and have litter sizes that ensure survival of at least some offspring in all but the harshest conditions. And they will displace native species that prey on what cats exterminate.
I think where cats do damage is that they simplify natural systems. They kill off diversity, killing off layers of interspecies interactions. The system that was self-complicating enough to be resilient and adaptable gets reduced to a point where, should the cats then disappear, or should a further destabilising event occur, the system might well be lost.
And then we anthropomorphise these creatures, and they can't possibly be the cause of our ecosystems' problems, oh, and we can't euthanise them, even though they've eaten all the rodents, are almost done the birds, and have started on the frogs, lizards, and large insects that used to keep things in balance, but at least we have furry, aristocratic murder machines left.
I think, when I have a barn and am storing things that will draw rodents, I will definitely have a barn cat. I am thinking along the lines of a Maine Coon, just so that whatever kills it eventually will have to be large enough to manage a twenty to thirty pound cat. But the cat will be encouraged to stay in and around the barn (yeah, right, I know), and won't be having kittens, or making kittens.
Honestly, if I could get away with not having to deal with the feces of an obligate carnivore, I would. My much better half and I just chose a Flemish Giant rabbit over a Russian Blue cross cat (allergy issues), mainly because the rabbit poop is a boon for the compost, as opposed to cat poop, which I think almost needs it's own toxic waste dump.
We don't even train them; they train us. They tolerate us humans because we provide them with everything they need as a byproduct of our existence. And then there are our fingers, just perfect for opening cans and scratching behind ears.
Insofar as individual animals are concerned, I have had considerable affection for several cats in my life, but my view of cats in permaculture is more complex; in my opinion, they are either a necessary evil or a horribly inaccurate but situationally effective pest control measure, in the way that unlimited bullets from an inaccurate, fast-firing machine gun at medium range might eventually get the job done, but with an unreasonable amount of collateral damage, which might not matter much if the target (rats) is surrounded by other undesireables (mice, squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks), but also has the potential to obliterate other levels of defense by accident (killing snakes, frogs, etc., that would prey on mice, baby rats, etc...).
In some cases, the ship of unique biological diversity has sailed, leaving us to reconstruct, as much as possible, the natural systems that cats and rats and rabbits have destroyed in some places. Where this is the case, should it be possible to actually accomodate feral felis domesticus populations into the new wildlife, there would need to be a controlling factor, like something to prey on feral cats, as well as many stable food sources, and it would be difficult to design a self-complicating system to replace what has been destroyed, but it should prove possible.
In cases where there are fragments of natural systems still trying to hold on, though, cats can push those over their tipping point. In these cases, I think we need to be hypervigilant with regards to feral populations. In some cases, fixing and releasing feral cats could be beneficial to control pest animal situations fostered by human activity, but in delicate situations, I think it important to cull whole populations to prevent further destruction of species at risk.
Cats can be great. They can be the difference between being able to store food items and being forced to eat the rats that ate your food. If I was slowly being starved to death by rodents eating my livelihood, a good ratter could save my life.
But they also have the potential to wreak absolute havoc on natural systems, throwing ecological balance into chaos. They are a tool in the permacultural toolbox, and they should be marked with some label that marks them as potentially life-enabling but also lethal as fuck to any population of animal it considers tasty or interesting.
Seeing as how the inspiration for a lot of permaculture comes from resilient, self-complicating natural systems, I think it really important to keep in mind that cats are the great ecological simplifier.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-Robert A. Heinlein
If they're spayed or neutered I don't really have a problem with barn cats, but...
A feral cat may range three or four miles- that's something your pigs, your goats, your chickens aren't doing- they're locked behind fences and gates, in paddocks or coops. I think many folks would be pretty surprised at how many "barn cats" are wandering ditches and country roads at four in the morning. Being warm-blooded, cats can mouse year-round, and that's definitely a benefit. They also kill the snakes and other critters that also eat rodents. In many instances they don't simply occupy an empty niche- they open that niche by killing the competition.
As with a lot of answers, "it depends." Whether cats are compatible with your system or not depends on your goals. For me, I wanted to rehab the family farm whose timber had been high-graded and the pastures exhausted; I wanted to provide habitat for wildlife and a big garden for the extended family and the farmer's market. Cats kill wildlife, full stop, even well-fed cats. If they didn't, they'd provide no service to the farm. Feeding feral cats only gives them a nutritional advantage over the native predators they're competing with, which are dependent entirely on what they can catch.
When our farm went from a dozen to two or three fixed cats, I didn't notice a marked increase in the number of mice or rats. And I didn't see cats in the pasture, I didn't see cats in the woodlots, I started seeing rabbits in the yard, two coveys of quail in the hay fields, more lizards in the garden, more black rat snakes, more speckled kingsnakes. To me it was a reasonable tradeoff- but if I had a smaller, more intensively managed property, if I was dependent upon my production as a primary income...I may have made a different decision. As long as the decision is informed, I don't think it's reasonable for folks to take issue with it.
bob day wrote:My rodent control is black snakes, and i get pissed as hell when the neighbors cats come over here and kill baby black snakes. her cats are well fed and don't need the food, so they can afford to leave the snakes lying where they kill them. I'm not sure if that is the reason I saw a copperhead for the first time in 15 years since black snakes also control the more poisonous varieties.
It is a good point to bring up about local snakes as rodent control. Right now my rodent control is mostly the native snakes. Gopher snakes, rattlers, and rubber boas all live on my property. Another I have for my area is birds. We have eagles, hawks, and falcons that nest on a bluff cliff near my place as well as plenty of owls, crows, ravens and other predatory birds.
I do plan to eventually get some cats, but I am still in building infrastructure on my place as I have only had my property for a couple years and haven't even gotten my house built yet. Still temporary living in a trailer. I don't want to get any animals until I have my basic living and infrastructure settled so I can offer a decent living for animals I care for.
I have wandering around my property now the snows are melting and have noticed the sheer amount of rodent tunnels that had been under the snow is just insane. So obviously the predator population is not keeping up with the rodents. I definitely have a rodent issue I will have to address more as I bring in more reasons for them to exploit.
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