Death. It comes around so suddenly on the farm. Sometimes you see the Grim Reaper’s scythe looming. Like when the turkeys are big enough for the cooker. Other times it’s just a shock.
Last week I couldn’t find my chickens. None of the older birds, the dozen that live in the orchard, were to be found pecking around in the grass. They didn’t come when I wandered into their coop, either, like they normally do. The younger birds, those that forage over near the barnyard, well they were nowhere to be seen, too.
Eventually I spied a wedge-tailed eagle on the neighbour’s fence. A majestic bird, as big as the post, it was eyeing off the sheep. A huge raptor, the powerful wedge-tail can take a lamb in its first few days of life, so I think it was just toying with the idea of the sheep. This one, however, from the patch of feathers that formed a ring on my lawn, had taken one of the chooks. The others were cowering in fear under the low hanging branches of the trees. Terrified by the passing shadow of the eagle, they huddled in the gloom until it seemed safe to come out again.
Free range is always a risk. Piglets can get crushed by their mums, or taken by a hawk or eagle or dogs. Chooks can be disembowelled by a tiny but ferocious quoll, the native cat. One quoll in the coop after dusk can decimate the flock, leaving carnage everywhere, tearing out the throats of every bird, leaving none to see through the night.
They say a fox is the only predator to leave no trace when they get in with your chooks. Dogs will leave a mess with the birds, strung over a distance. Quolls leave the body, quite often, ready to come back another night and finish the feed. Cats play with their quarry. Eagles and hawks leave feathers just where they plummeted to earth and stole their prey, but no other trail or trace.
Tasmania has never had foxes. Until now. There have been several sightings in the valley where I live, and more in the state’s north over the last few years. Sly and fast and very difficult to catch, foxes study their prey well. If I get them around here, the first sign will be the loss of the bandicoots. Gorgeous, rabbit-like creatures, bandicoots are long-snouted, grey coated and cute as can be. They dig a bit in the garden, aren’t that fast on the ground (they hop, like mini kangaroos), and are a joy to have around the farm. But they’re easy meals for anything that’s fleet of foot, and foxes will have their fill of bandicoots before they can catch a rabbit.
Luckily life abounds in the vegie garden, as there’s still warmth in the soil and light in the sky. The jerusalem artichokes are out of the ground. Planted in early spring, they took up a fair bit of garden for a lot of the year in the growing season. The flowers grew so high they touched the top of the net, and like spuds, when the tops die down it’s a sign to harvest them. But as the seasons change over, there’s not a lot of variety from the plot, and these make a welcome change.
Roasted to golden in the oven, or pureed into soup, they’re a reminder of posh meals in the city where they often made an appearance in the restaurant meals I once ate. They’re also a reminder of a visit to a truffle grower in the middle of last winter (because that’s when I got the tubers to plant), though my artichokes are a far cheaper earthy experience than the powerfully scented truffle.