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Life and Death on the Farm

In the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day most of Australia slips into a liminal space in which it is almost officially decreed that ‘nothing happens’. It is a tradition that starts with Boxing Day cricket and finishes with New Year’s Eve parties. In between we barely know what day of the week it is. Not so at Springfield — at least not this year.

Firstly, our plans were messed up by a family member being deemed a ‘close contact’ so our Christmas Day celebration in Sydney was delayed until Boxing Day. No biggie. On our return to Springfield, just as we were sinking into the haze of that delicious week-of-nothing and pulling on ugg boots on an unseasonably cold and wet, foggy day, we were surprised by news from our international guests - friends Des, Nadya and Alex who are migrating to Australia from Singapore.

As they were driving down the driveway, peering into the knee-high green grass, they spotted what appeared to be a very large white mushroom. As they looked again it moved — clearly not a mushroom?

On closer inspection they were delighted to discover that the ‘mushroom’ was actually the head of a little white baby alpaca — known as a cria. We were all stunned, no one knew the mama Alpaca was pregnant, not even the vet who had treated her the week before for an injury. And she’d kept her pregnancy a secret for a year — the gestation period for alpacas.

As none of us had a single clue as to what to do next we sprung into action — Peter and Des building a small pen, Nadya and Alex carefully moving the cria to the pen, and me texting madly to ask the local alpaca expert, Jess, for advice. We intuitively knew that in the cold, wet mizzle the cria would be vulnerable, and this was confirmed by Jess, so we all pitched in to construct a temporary shelter to protect them from the weather. By the time we got to bed that night we were all soaked through, cold to the bone and full of the awe and wonder of nature. Farmer Peter was up every hour or so throughout the night to check on the mama and cria to check that they were bonding and feeding. I awoke to the news that all was well.

Not knowing mama alpaca was pregnant made the arrival of her cria seem like a Christmas miracle, especially in the light of all the miserable stories about the pandemic’s effect on everyone’s holiday plans. ‘Baby anythings are such joys,’ a friend said. The biggest miracle and thrill of all, was witnessing this unexpected little life unfolding into a fluffy, playful and impossibly cute little Springfielder named Misty. Only one day old she had already survived a number of things that could have ended her. Not only had her fully-pregnant mama been chased around the paddock and wrestled to the ground so the vet could give her stitches, Misty’s chances of surviving the cold and wet were 50/50, mostly dependent on bonding with mama. Mama was stressed and confused and her bonding was threatened because of papa alpaca, who had to be separated because he’d tried to stomp little Misty to death! Misty’s survival instinct and will to live was amazing.

Such drama — the precariousness of life and death on the farm.

The very next day, in a short lived moment of calm, I was writing in the studio when I got a call from Farmer Pete, “Every one of my one hundred and fifty quails are dead.” As anyone who has seen Peter with his quails can attest to, this wasn’t a joking matter. “How?” I asked, my eyes instantly stinging with tears at the thought of Peter witnessing the carnage of his beloved little darlings. “A fox — killed every last one of them, and he’s still in here.”

It appeared as if the fox had had a killing spree, as if just for fun, but this didn’t make sense to me. Such behaviour is at odds with what I know about nature. It was such an exquisite animal, too — the colour and texture of it’s fur, the elegant tail and beautiful eyes. The first time I saw a fox run it displayed such elegance and grace I was mesmerised. How could a beast of such beauty be a ruthless, senseless murderer?

In fact they are not, nor is any predator in nature. “Henhouse syndrome” or surplus killing, happens when foxes can easily kill more than they can eat in one sitting. In the wild the excess would be buried, or hidden, or shared with family. In the wild he wouldn’t find quails in an enclosure. Males typically take extra prey back to their nursing mates and kits. Perhaps our fox was a papa too.

Peter and I gathered the poor little quails and then Peter collected a bucketful of eggs to take to his incubator. By coincidence the number of eggs he collected matched the exact number of eggs his incubator can hold. Perhaps that's a good omen and in seventeen days we’ll have some quail chicks to start populating the quail house again. (In the meantime we have to figure out how that darn fox got in!)

So, while you were all lolling about (hopefully), enjoying your week-of-doing-nothing, here at Springfield we’ve been in a spin, birthing and burying.

All of this seems to fit well with the hope and promise of the New Year. Every day the sun rises and sets. Every month the moon transitions from full to waning until full again. Summer comes and goes (unless you live in the Southern Highlands, where summer forgot to come this year), the leaves fall, then the frost paints the paddocks crisp white, until the green buds once more herald in the Spring. And always, through it all, the garden keeps growing. Cycles, rhythms, patterns, beginnings, endings, birth and death. Each new year, like a new dawn, brings hope.

Here at Springfield we can’t help but find hope in the new year ahead — whatever it brings. One thing we know for sure, that we have seen over and over again during the past two years, is that we (all of us) are far more resilient, adaptable and creative than we thought we were. Look how we’ve rolled from drought to fire to waves of pandemic. Yes, it's been bloody tough, and many have fared far worse than we have, but I’m always amazed by how quickly we, as a society adapt, as if it’s a survival instinct, on some level we know we have to adapt or perish. We get on with it. So here’s to riding out 2022 with the elegance and grace of a fox on the run, the survival instincts (and luck) of a baby alpaca, the positive hope of Farmer Pete with his egg-incubator, and like the garden, let’s keep growing.

x Kinchem

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