At dusk we walked down the hill intending to pick up any outlying chickens and lock them in the chicken house. The Sussex are not mixing well with the Rhode Island Reds. This is common when new birds are introduced into a flock; they are pecked and tormented, sometimes even to death, by the older birds. If only a few new birds are introduced, they can come in for a lot of unwanted attention from their flock mates. We have always introduced our new flocks en masse, and the sheer number of new birds means that no one chicken usually gets too much abuse before the old hens forget or lose interest. But this year, for some reason, the Sussex are not settling in as they should. Maybe the difference in breed is partly responsible for the continued uneasiness between flocks. Whatever the cause, the Sussex are not venturing into the chicken house in the evenings to roost, and in the last week we have lost five. S-3 thinks they were killed by a hawk, which would mean a daytime raid, but an owl could have killed them, we suppose; at any rate, I want them to live in the chicken house, and lay in the nesting boxes, or we lose too many eggs. So, as I say, we walked down the hill at dusk to put them in.
Only, when we reached the spot where our two creeks meet, the dark was not so dark as it had seemed from the kitchen window. The dozen or so birds perched on compost bin and brick pile saw us coming, and we only caught four or five. Another seven were perched too high in the apple trees for us to reach them. We crossed the little bridge and climbed the hill to check the steers’ watering trough.
More hose is needed to allow the tank at the top of the hill to gravity feed down valley where the steers are pastured, so we run a hose up from the spring tank and use the jet pump. It must be primed before use, and while I wait beside the blue half-barrel I watch the mysterious rise of thousands of fireflies all suddenly sure that this is the moment for them to break upon the world. Like myriad fire lanterns they drift upward in an ambling, unsure flight. They look like fairy kind.
Leaning slightly against the downhill pull of the hose, I wait for the water to flow. Eventually, raising the end of the hose to my ear, I feel more than hear the passage of air forced out of the hosepipe by the rising water; the hose sags in my hands, then spurts into the tank. The yearling steers stand beside one another a few feet from me, nose to tail, and blow out breath in a bored, bedtime sort of way. The spring steers are together at the top of the paddock, away from these two; perhaps all animals like to segregate.
Shawn is a blur of paler shadow when he draws down the hose to fill the tank for the dairy cow in her private paddock. She is older, and much heavier, than the steers, and the more level land of the lower pasture is reserved for her use. The steers, on the other hand, graze high, a one-in-one grade, more productive, until this year, of rocks than of forage. How transformative of land is the periodic passage of large herbivores. These, as the grazier says with relish, eat, step, urinate, or defecate, on every square foot of their one-day paddocks, thereby trimming, fertilizing, and lightly tilling it while getting their own living. Already, in the short time we have been managing our grazing land, the hillside, formerly rock, briar, and thistle is clothing itself in grass and palatable weeds. We look at this change with more wonder than pride.
There is a degree of darkness which transforms all but the most skittish hen into a mild protest. Six birds are perched on the compost bin, and we lift them without ceremony and shove them through the cleanout door into the hen house. King, the young male dog, is out of earshot, or divines somehow that we have his chain, and does not come to our call. We had hoped to leave him on chicken guard duty, but decide that what is difficult is unnecessary. We have children up the hill we want to see.