A chilling reminder.jpg

A chilling reminder

By: MARGARET BROWN

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Margaret Brown is one of The Resident’s longest standing contributors and has lived in the Algarve for more than 20 years. As well as Country Matters, she also writes Point of View every week.

EITHER IT was the sound of shots coming from a local gun club or a clay pigeon shoot up in the hills. A chilling reminder that our friends, the hunters, will soon be back – something I prefer to forget on a beautiful Monday morning.

Back in the days when we rode our horses over the hills toward Monchique, we came across a bare plateau covered in broken clays, no doubt where hunters honed their skills and calibrated their guns. That way, whatever birds they were after might have a quick and easy death.

A different matter for the fox, an animal difficult to kill cleanly unless hit in the head and that with a soft nosed bullet fired from a high velocity .22 firearm, essentially in the hands of an expert.

It has been accepted in Britain by generations of country people that control of this predator is best left in the hands of the fox hunting fraternity – until made illegal in November 2004. Since then shooting, snaring, poisoning or trapping have been used to keep the numbers in check, but with little success.

And then there is ‘lamping’, going cross country at night using off-road vehicles and powerful hand held lights, which allows small groups of enthusiasts to seek out their quarry. As long as care is taken not to endanger livestock or humans and the land owner’s permission is obtained, there are no legal restrictions regarding who takes a pot at the unfortunate animals.

Sometimes old ways are better, instant death delivered by hunting dogs or one which is slow and painful from poison or a festering wound? Like many changes imposed by a government not in touch with its rural roots, these restrictions are the result of having listened to advisors who dwell within city and suburban confines rather than those at the sharp end.

Meanwhile the farmers of England and Wales who know no other way of life buck the trend and continue to till the soil. Famous for complaining about the weather, poor market returns, avaricious supermarkets, form filling, ignorant town dwellers and most everything else on a bad day, they are also an endangered species.

Loss of respect

Over a period of forty years, having worked as farm labourer, gained a degree in dairying, acted as an advisor for the Ministry of Agriculture and finally been employed by the now defunct Milk Marketing Board, I have watched the industry suffer loss of respect and a gentle slide into obscurity.

There are the same signs of progressive neglect behind the coastal strip in the Algarve, with derelict farmland falling into the hands of entrepreneurs from east to west as the old people die and their children move into town. Having found a 9-5 job, a few of these migrants who cannot ignore their bucolic genes, rent a piece of ground on which to put a pony. It is then hobbled because fencing is expensive and sometimes left during daylight hours without shade in summer or shelter in winter, and perhaps if it is a mare put in foal.

Around our area more foals have been born than ever before, some are in good condition while there are others, both mother and baby, which look poor and underfed. It is the custom round our way that as soon as the youngster grows a decent length of tail the hair is trimmed level with the dock, removing a natural defence against flies until it has re-grown.

Carriage and work horses in Britain suffered the same treatment until it was banned in 1949 together with the ‘nicking’ operation which ensured a high and showy tail, the latter achieved by breaking the tail bone and cutting certain muscles. When I was a child, as a member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, I walked our neighbourhood soliciting signatures for a petition that was to be laid before Parliament that this painful and unnecessary operation made illegal. It took seventeen years until the Act was passed. Again, tradition claimed that a long tail might trap the lines used to drive carriage horses, control would be lost and the animals bolt, thus endangering life.

Having driven dog carts, drays and haymaking machinery before tractors were in common use, I never experienced a runaway, although while working on a smallholding back in 1940 it finally happened. The local Squire-cum-Auctioneer, my employer, had a mown hayfield waiting to be windrowed but no suitable equipment.

A friend, living at the foot of Bredon Hill in Worcestershire, offered him a horse drawn rake if someone collected it, so I was told to harness the farm Cob, ride over – a matter of 12 miles – and drive it back along the road. Sat on the broad back of this busty chestnut gelding I was in a state of bliss, a passionate horse lover ready to ride anything with four legs that was able to carry me. My backside developed a blister before the half-way mark, so it was a relief to climb down, attach the long shafts of the rake and set off home.

Unused to roadwork and a touch frisky, as soon as the horse heard the noise of rattling tines, and the iron shod wheels hit tarmac he was off like Schumacher on pole position when the lights turn green. We ended up in a ditch and leading the animal – both my feet were blistered on the long walk home.