Getting Away With Murder

The harsh realities of life on a farm

The text tells me that there may be nobody at home when I arrive but that the house will be unlocked. How ridiculous, I think to myself, hailing from a city as I do, where people would steal your dustbin lid if your house number wasn’t painted on it.

I decide not to rush down there, especially if I won’t have a fanfare to greet my arrival. So it’s 11am when I leave Mount Evelyn and begin the 300km journey to Port Campbell, via Melbourne city.

I am borrowing my fourth car, which is not bad for 5 weeks. Everyone in Australia seems to have a spare car that they don’t use and friends have been only too happy to lend me theirs. (Cars are insured for any driver over 25 years old over here, so you don’t have to be a named driver to be covered). This trip, I am driving a Kia which Olive’s husband, Dixon has lent me. It is a smooth drive along the freeway (part of which isn’t free, but charged by a prepaid e-tag which deducts each journey). This takes me round the city and over the Westgate bridge, a colossal thing which seems to be far too big for the city it serves. Although Melbourne city has many more tall buildings than it did when I first saw it a quarter of a century ago, they still all sit in one neat little cluster.

I leave the freeway at Geelong and take the inland route to Port Campbell. The scenery is very green at the moment due to the harsh and wet winter they have had and the drive down is very windy.

After a couple of stops, I arrive in Port Campbell about 4.30pm. Nobody is home but as promised, the doors are unlocked. At least the dogs are there to greet me — Tom, the ageing herder; Roxy, the border collie/labrador cross who acts as family pet; Nigel (named after me), the young apprentice kelpie herder who is tied up as apparently he was naughty earlier. I can’t yet spot Pippa the Maremma sheepdog as she is tied up somewhere else on the farm and only gets let off to do the night shift patrol.

I take my bags in,put the kettle on and a few minutes later, as it boils, I see Daisy coming up the driveway with daughter Magic. Daisy is Donald’s husband and I have known Donald for 2½ decades. (Donald is Monsta’s sister). Donald is away at the moment so I have come down to the farm to keep Daisy company for a few days.

After tea and a brief chat, Daisy sets about the daily ritual of rounding up the ducks and putting them in their sheds for the night. She has found a pair of wellies that don’t quite fit me but I am able to go out and watch. I feel like Margot Leadbetter from The Good Life as I tiptoe uncomfortably through the mud.

The 1200 or so ducks are reared here for 10–14 weeks, fed on a mixture of grain and apple-infused wheat. Each week, 200–300 are taken to an abattoir in Melbourne and then sold to some of the top Melbourne restaurants.

Today, not all the ducks make it back to the shed. One duck remains in the paddock, despite Nigel the dog trying to stare it down but it sits quite still, blinking back, vacantly. As Daisy and I approach, we can see a huge open wound on its back and its entrails are stretching out into the grass like a string of chipolata sausages. Daisy reckons that a crow must have caused it but I would be surprised if a crow could inflict such a wound. Still, whatever the cause, the duck won’t survive, even though it is sitting there passively, presumably stunned by its predicament. “We will have to kill it,” says Daisy, but there’s something about the way she says it that makes me think “We” actually means Me. This is far from something I relish. I accidentally stepped on a snail a couple of weeks ago and it played on my mind for a whole evening. But Daisy is also upset. It’s one thing rearing ducks for eventual meat consumption, and also picking up dead ones from the field as she has to do from time to time, but it’s a different kettle of ducks when you’re faced with killing one in cold blood.

She wants me to cut its head off with a knife but I can’t do that. To me, beheadings are barbaric. I am not sure whether my method is any more humane but I want to ensure that the duck dies as soon as possible and I don’t trust my skills with a knife at that angle as its head is still upright. I will spare you most of the gory details but suffice it to say, I bludgeon it. And it’s not nice. This puts us both in a melancholic mood for a while.

I have visited Donald and Daisy’s farm on many occasions and from a distance I have seen their duck business grow steadily over the past few years. To me, it looks idyllic. But my trips to date, have only been in summer and as I later watch Magic and Daisy loading the ducks onto the truck ready for market in the wind and the hail, I can see how the relentless drudgery is a different reality. Farming is hard work and the margins are small, especially the free range method that Donald and Daisy have chosen. Every puddled step that Daisy takes, you can see that she’s waiting for the long long winter to end and the sun to finally shine.