Ecosystems Processes. As horse owners we are taking care of large herbivorous animals. In order to support horses and provide the food they are designed to eat, we must take care of our land.

In turn, to be able to make the right decisions and create healthy pastures and adequate food for our horses (and for ourselves) we must understand our global ecosystem and its functions.

To work with nature’s inherent complexity we must focus on the four fundamental processes that operate in any ecosystem:

The Water Cycle

The Mineral Cycle

The Solar Energy Flow

The Community Dynamics

(the patterns of change and development within communities of living organisms).

Consciously modify any one of these processes, and you automatically change all of them in some way because, in reality, they are only different aspects of the same thing. It helps if you think of them as four different windows through which you can observe the same room – our ecosystem as it functions.

You cannot have an effective water or mineral cycle or adequate energy flow without communities of living organisms, and vice versa. If you wanted to change the water cycle on a piece of land you would plan which tools to use and how to use them.

But before going further, you would also consider how those tools would affect the mineral cycle, energy flow and community dynamics. All of us—not just the people that are directly managing land—must begin to acquire a basic understanding of the fundamental processes through which our ecosystem functions, if only to better understand our dependence on them.

The four ecosystem processes


An effective water cycle requires a covered and biologically active soil.

When effective, most water soaks in quickly where it falls. Later, it is released slowly through plants that transpire it, or through rivers, springs and aquifers that collect, through seepage, what the plants do not take. When soil is openly exposed, and biological activity is reduced, most water runs off and floods. The small amount that does soak in is released rapidly through evaporation which draws moisture back up through the soil surface.

An effective mineral cycle also requires a covered and biologically active soil. When effective (left), many nutrients cycle between living plants and living soil continually. When soil is exposed and biological activity low (right), nutrients become trapped at various points in the cycle or are lost to wind and water erosion.


With few exceptions, natural communities strive to develop toward ever-greater complexity and thus stability. From unstable bare ground, where biological activity is low, stable range or forest communities develop over time.

When humans reduce this complexity by planting monoculture crops or lawns, for instance, they so defy the principles of nature that they can only be maintained by unnatural means, and then only temporarily.

As components within nature, humans cannot escape this principle any more than other organisms can.


Almost all life requires the energy that flows daily from the sun. The basic conversion of this solar energy to usable form takes place through plant material on land and in water. That’s why plants form the base of the energy pyramid depicted here.

As the energy passes from plants to whatever eats them, and in turn heats the eaters of the plants, some is lost as heat, and eventually all the energy is lost. Thus, energy doesn’t cycle; it flows through the ecosystem until it’s used up.

The Tools

To be able to review the tools that are available to us for managing ecosystems we have to include again the Holistic Management Framework model (figure 1)

Human creativity as well as money and labour bracket the other six tool headings in the model because both come into play in the use of the other tools.

Money and labour are listed together because the once simple combination of labour, creativity, and resources frequently operates through the agency of money.

Inside the brackets are Technology, Rest, Fire, Grazing, Animal Impact, and Living Organisms. Those tools inside the brackets are the only tools (or categories of tools) humans can use to modify the ecosystem processes. One or both of the tools outside the brackets have to be used in association with the tools inside the brackets.

The dotted line around Living Organisms in the tools line and around Community Dynamics on the Ecosystem Processes line reminds people that when you use the tool of living organisms, you are by default affecting the dynamics of the biological community; they are same thing.

Understanding the tools and their effect on the ecosystem processes is essential for diagnosing a resource management problem.

Money & Labour—One or both of these tools is always required.

Human Creativity—Key to using all the tools effectively.

Fire—The most ancient tool.

Rest—The most misunderstood tool.

Grazing—The most abused tool.

Animal Impact—The least used tool.

Living Organisms—The most complex tool.

Technology—The most used tool.

In conventional management, the tools available for altering any one of the ecosystem processes were limited to four broad categories: rest, fire, living organisms, and technology. In the more brittle environments, however, these tools alone were inadequate to maintain or improve the functioning of the four ecosystem processes. Allan Savory found a remedy to this shortcoming in the behaviours of the large herding and grazing animals that had helped to maintain these environments for eons. Though the value of their dung for increasing soil fertility had long been recognized, most people had rejected the most vital parts of the animals—their hooves and mouths— which could be harnessed as tools—animal impact and grazing—for improving water and mineral cycles, energy flow and community dynamics.

When managing holistically, all tools are equal. No tool is good or bad and no judgments on any tool or action should be made outside the context of the whole under management. Only when the holistic goal and the degree of brittleness of the environment are known, together with the many other factors having a bearing on the situation, is any tool finally judged suitable or unsuitable. A careful consideration of the testing and management guidelines helps us finally decide which tools are best to apply in a given situation. Even then, we always assume we could be wrong, and monitor to ensure the tools selected achieve what we want them to achieve.

The seven guidelines for testing to ensure your decisions are socially, environmentally, and economically sound and will take you toward your holistic goal will be discussed in more detail in the next edition.

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